Sunday, 17 March 2013

Anointing Jesus' Feet

On the Sunday before a new Archbishop of Canterbury and a new Pope are anointed for their ministry, the gospel tells how Jesus is anointed at the house of Lazarus.  The timing is suggestive: just as Jesus is anointed for burial, so two new Christian leaders embrace the vocation to take up the cross.  When Donald Coggan was installed as Archbishop, a secretary mistyped ‘enthronement’ as ‘enthornment’ in the draft service order. She typed more wisely than she knew, said Coggan. Archbishop Justin Welby and Pope Francis will be in all our prayers this week. 

Back to Bethany, where Jesus loved to go. There a woman spontaneously does what prophets and priests do in the Old Testament: anoint a king for a royal vocation.  This is what Christ literally is, the mashiah or anointed one who has come into the world, says St John, to bring a kingdom that is not of this world. What prompts this extraordinary, extravagant gesture, so disapproved of by tut-tutting Judas, emptying a pot of scented oil almost above price over the feet of Jesus? It’s worth a king’s ransom indeed, and that is what it is, for this is a King above price, at least to Mary for whom her anointing symbolises all the passionate devotion she feels for him.  

Tim Rice in Jesus Christ Superstar assigns to a different character (how confusing all these Marys are in the New Testament!) the song, ‘I don’t know how to love him’. But her precious ointment shows that she does know in her heart of hearts.  She knows how to love in a way few of us ever have.  And Jesus knows it too. That touch of hers, so physical, so erotic that it cannot fail to shock; the perfumed scent that fills the house like incense: both freight this story with powerful, sensual images.  Of all the senses, touch and smell are the most pervasive and long-lasting.  The sense of smell is the last to leave a dying person; it has the capacity to evoke long-forgotten landscapes, recall long-dead people, reawaken long-lost memories. So it is not surprising that this aromatic episode is associated in St Mark with an act of memory: ‘wherever this gospel is proclaimed, what this woman has done will be told in memory of her’, anamnesis, the same word that Jesus uses when he commands us to take bread and wine ‘in memory of me’. 

In St John, this episode opens the passion narrative, and sets the scene for what he will go on to tell us in the following chapters about the suffering and death of Jesus. It is six days before the Passover, Jesus’ last Sunday. So this is a last Sunday meal, perhaps meant as a pre-echo of the last supper in the upper room on the coming Thursday just as the bathing of Jesus’ feet with oil also looks forward to the upper room where he himself will wash his disciples’ feet. The previous chapter has ended ominously with the threat of Jesus’ arrest. Now, says Jesus, Mary has anointed him with oil for the day of his burial. From now on, St John will be concerned with one thing above all else: how Jesus will be lifted up on a cross so that all humanity may be drawn to him.  For in the Fourth Gospel Golgotha is not tragedy but triumph. Jesus’ life is poured out on the cross just like precious oil so that the aroma of divine self-giving and grace may fill the world that God so loves.

Maybe Mary intuited this in her act of anointing, maybe not.  For her, it may simply have been the offering of her devoted service and passionate love; or an extreme act of courtesy to honour a guest in her home; or else the recognition of a royal presence on the part of a loyal subject. It is Jesus who turns it into preparation for his death and burial. John tells us that after his death, women bring spices to anoint Jesus’ body before laying it in the tomb.  We are in the realm of the symbolic: this is more than simply an anticipation of what will happen in six days’ time.  What does it mean?

The word I want to use is ‘consecration’.  This little drama at Bethany is nothing less than Jesus’ consecration for the work he has to do: to achieve the salvation of the world. The idea of a set purpose and of accomplishment is strong in the Fourth Gospel.  Early on, Jesus says that his food is to do the will of the one who sent him and to accomplish his work. And his last word from the cross will be the triumphant cry of accomplishment that all is now done: tetelestai, ‘it is finished!’. So Mary consecrates Jesus by anointing him for this awful but glorious task.

On Passion Sunday, I want to suggest that we too must consecrate Jesus in our hearts as we prepare to celebrate the coming days of awe, the Passover of our crucified and risen Lord. In the next chapter of St John, it is Jesus himself who washes the feet of his disciples, consecrating them for service and commanding his disciples in every time and place to wash and anoint one another’s feet. But just as we do this for one another and for the world, we also need to do it for Jesus, come to him with all the love we can find in our hearts to break open the container of our heart and pour at his feet all its wealth and treasure.   

Perhaps something like this lies behind the puzzling saying about always having the poor with us, but not always having Jesus. Judas’ angry outburst about waste, and how the money saved could have been given to the poor misunderstands the gesture.  For it is precisely as we pour out all that we have and anoint the Messiah’s feet that we begin to grasp what our obligation to the world truly is.  The Torah says in Deuteronomy that we always have the poor with us, so we must open our hand to our neighbour in need. In a sense this is precisely what Mary does for the poor Christ who has nowhere to lay his head, who has to rely on the kindness and generosity of those like her who receive him into their homes. What we do for Christ, we do for one another, just as St Matthew says: what we do for the hungry and thirsty, the stranger and the naked, the sick and the prisoner, we do for him. We wash Jesus’ feet and we wash him in his poor companions.  

As I approach the threshold of Holy Week, I ask myself: how have I consecrated Christ in my heart for this celebration of his passion and resurrection? How will I honour him, love him, serve him as he goes to the cross for my salvation?  Will it be by doing the works of mercy to the poor who bear his image and who are always with us? Will it be by some act of generous giving to the church which is his body that we love and care about?  Will it be by time spent in prayer and reflection in this holiest of seasons?  Might it be in all three ways: consecrating Christ by serving the poor, giving to the church, growing as disciples as we walk the via dolorosa with him?

We have six days to think about it before Holy Week begins and we sing about the love that is so amazing, so divine.  For love is the issue today: loving Jesus and not being afraid of extravagance in the treasure we open up and lay at his feet. The question we face is simple: if he has so loved us, how will we show our love for him?  How will we consecrate him within our own selves for the work of love he comes to do? And how will we become ‘as Christ’ to a world that needs him so much?

 Durham Cathedral, Passion Sunday, 17 March 2013 (John 12.1-8)

No comments:

Post a Comment