Anointing

NardSermon offered at
St. Nathaniel’s Episcopal Church
March 17, 2013; Lent V-C
Isaiah 43:16-21, Psalm 126, Philippians 3:4b-14, John 12:1-8

Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness.  Come let us adore him.
I speak to you in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit . . .

In the gospel reading today we’ve arrived at the beginning of the last week of Jesus’ life on earth.  In our worship, starting today and ending with the resurrection on Easter Sunday (for us that’s two weeks from today), we will be celebrating – and in some most cases actually reenacting –  the last week of Jesus’ life.

Next Sunday, Palm Sunday, is Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem for the last time.  In order for us to enter into that triumphant event, we’ll be gathering outside in the garden next Sunday where we’ll take up palm branches and then process into the church.  Then immediately the focus will turn to the events of Jesus’ death and Passion.  That will happen for us next Sunday with the dramatic reading of the Passion according to Luke – and we will all be participants . . .

Then on Maundy Thursday we will reenact the Lord’s Supper including the scene where Jesus, as servant, washes his disciples’ feet.  The supper itself will follow with communion at the altar.  Then the remainder of the sacrificial feast, Jesus’ own body and blood, will lie “in repose” until Friday.  We’re planning to locate the altar of repose over in the side niche.  Meanwhile, the sanctuary will be stripped and the Altar washed down before we leave on Thursday night.

On Friday at noon, roughly the time Jesus was hung on the cross, we’ll come together for prayer and reverencing the cross –  and for communion with the bread and wine held in reserve from the night before.  (No consecration on Good Friday.)

After the silence of Saturday when Jesus’ body was lying in the tomb, on Saturday evening we’ll celebrate the Great Vigil of Easter – starting outside by lighting the new fire, and then by carrying the Pascal candle into the church where it will remain for the entire season of Easter until Pentecost.

The Vigil is actually the biggest, most significant worship celebration of the Christian year.  The liturgy of the word is extended in this service to bring to life, once again, the entire salvation history of the Jewish people:  from Creation through the Flood . . Abraham’s life . . . the Exodus  . . . and the prophets Isaiah, Ezekiel and Zephaniah.  (That’s the long version.  We’ll be reading just two of the nine readings in this section of the service.)  Then comes the baptismal celebration:  for us this year this will be the renewal of our baptismal vows.

The Great Vigil service up to this point is celebrated in subdued lighting.  But at the conclusion of the baptismal vows – the lights go on, the candles are lit – the bells ring  –  –  Christ is risen!!!   And we begin the celebration of the first Eucharist of Easter . . . Let the Alleluias return!

So all this drama lies ahead in the next two weeks of worship . . . here at St. Nathaniel’s and throughout the Christian world.

But returning now to today’s gospel reading and the first act of worship as we remember the last week of Jesus’ physical life on earth.  The act of worship that initiates all that follows is the anointing of Jesus at the home of personal friends in Bethany just outside of Jerusalem.

Today, Jesus has stopped by the home of Mary, Martha and Lazarus before entering Jerusalem for the last time.   It’s been only four days since Jesus last visited this house – after the news of Lazarus death.  We know from John’s telling of that story that Jesus loved them – Mary and Martha and Lazarus — and Jesus wept at the tomb where Lazarus was interred.

And then the last of Jesus’ “Signs” recorded in the gospel of John:  Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead.  This was the sign that caused many people to believe in Jesus – to flock to him – and it was also the sign that caused others to plot his death.

Now, the Passover is near – and so too is Jesus’ hour.  When Jesus’ arrives in Bethany this time, his days are numbered. He knows it and most probably his friends Mary, Martha and Lazarus know it, too.

But for this one night, they are throwing a dinner party in Jesus’ honor.  Martha is serving.  Lazarus is at the table with Jesus –  with perhaps a few other close friends and disciples.  We know from the story that at least Judas Iscariot, one of the twelve, is there.

Quietly Mary leaves the table.  And she comes back holding a clay jar in her hands.  Without a word she kneels down at Jesus’ feet and breaks open the jar.  A deep, rich smell fills the room.  The jar is filled with a perfume of nard – that’s short for spikenard, which is an expensive, thick oil made from the pulverized root of an exotic Himalayan plant.

As all eyes in the room turn to watch her, Mary does four remarkable and bizarre things:

  • First she unties her hair and lets it fall loose – which an honorable woman never does.
  • Then she pours the perfume on Jesus’ feet, which is also not done – on the head maybe; that’s how kings are anointed – but never on the feet.
  • Then Mary massages the oil into Jesus’ feet – also never done, not even among friends.
  • And she wipes the perfume off with her hair – another totally bizarre act . . .

What the gathered company in the room thinks about this, we’re not entirely sure . . . but Judas objects.  The value of this jar of perfume is the equivalent of an average working wage for an entire year! And Judas wants to know why the expensive perfume hasn’t been sold to provide money for the poor.

But Jesus brushes him aside. “Leave her alone,”  he says.  “She bought it so that she might have it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”

Here is the same Jesus, the advocate of the poor, who always puts their needs above his own.  In this case, though, he reverses his course –and at the same time he reveals the meaning of Mary’s strange offering:  If there had been any doubts that Jesus’ final hours had arrived, Mary’s prophetic behavior made it clear.  She was anointing Jesus for his burial.

What was happening in that interchange between Mary and Jesus was an expression of love.  It was also an act of worship . . .  And in this way, Mary sets the stage for our worship coming up in the next two weeks and extending throughout the Christian year.

When Mary wipes Jesus feet, she is foreshadowing Jesus actions several days later . . . when he gives his disciples the new commandment “to love one another as he has loved us” . . . when he washes the disciple’s feet at the Last Supper.  This ritual action will be part of our worship on Maundy Thursday.  And of course, Our Lord’s Last Supper is for us the First Supper, the institution of the Eucharistic feast which we celebrate every Sunday.

The use of perfumed oil in anointing is a sacramental act we take up in baptism when the sign of the cross with chrismatic oil seals the newly adopted son or daughter as Christ’s own forever.  We also use oil in the sacrament of unction – the anointing of the sick . . . and in the anointing of the dying.

In a very real way, Mary’s ritual actions at that dinner party transformed that house in the village of Bethany into a sanctuary – and transformed the meal that night into a Eucharist “showing forth the Lord’s death until he comes again.” . . .   And as a result the whole world is now filled with the fragrance of that perfume.

So with Mary:  Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness . . . come let us adore him . . .

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