In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
In today’s Gospel we hear the story of one of the Lord’s women disciples (traditionally identified as Mary Magdalene) anointing his feet with “costly ointment of pure nard,” and wiping his feet with her hair. The text indicates that the ointment was worth three hundred denarii. A denarius was a day’s wage for a laborer in Jesus’ time, so 300 denarii was about a year’s salary for a normal person. It was expensive ointment.
Judas Iscariot, who will shortly betray Jesus to his death, asks why the ointment was not sold and the proceeds given to the poor. The text implicitly suggests that Judas’ disingenuousness here is consistent with his character, and that it is a harbinger of the betrayal that is to come.
But Jesus responds somewhat cryptically. He says: “Let her alone, let her keep it for the day of my burial. The poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me.” Just as Judas’ words foreshadow his betrayal of Jesus, so the act of anointing Jesus’ feet portends his death – “Let her keep it for the day of my burial,” he says. The anointing of a body was the final ritual before burial.
The name of this day in the Church calendar used to be “passionSunday.” That name has now been applied as a kind of subtitle toNEXT Sunday. Next Sunday, in the Book of Common Prayer, is called “The Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday.” Be that as it may, today we begin to see signs – like budding flowers in spring – that Lent is drawing to a close. We begin to be reminded, liturgically, that, as Jesus says later in this same chapter of John’s gospel, “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit,” (John 12.24).
The anointing of a body was the last ritual before burial. And so this anointing we hear of today signifies that Jesus’ earthly ministry is drawing to a close, that all is about to be accomplished. And it will be accomplished on Good Friday, when the earthly life of the only Son of God will be fulfilled and starkly finished, as he is “crucified, dead and buried.”
But what lessons may we draw for our own lives from this passage about the anointing of Jesus’ feet with costly ointment? Firstly we may deduce something about worship. The action the woman performs is oriented entirely toward Jesus. She gives no thought to herself or to anyone else. In Matthew’s version of this story, the Lord says of the woman that “she has done a beautiful thing to me,” (Matthew 26.10). Beauty is often extravagant and costly. And so this episode reminds us of our primary “bounden duty and service,” which is, namely, according to the words of our liturgy, the worship of God in the person of Jesus. We may be about other things as Christians, but we are PRIMARILY about THIS.
And so it is not a scandal when Christians sometimes spend extravagant amounts of time, energy and, yes, money on the worship of God. One might think of an iconographer or an artist – historically these were usually monks and nuns – who works very carefully for a very long time to produce an image of our Lord that is then hung in a church, in order to make the place where God dwells more beautiful, and to edify those who come there to worship him. The artist COULD have spend that time doing something else – working in a soup kitchen or a clinic for the homeless. But our Lord’s words might just as appropriately be applied to such an artist as they are to the “Mary” in today’s Gospel: “Let her alone, let her keep it for the day of my burial. The poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me,” and “she has done a beautiful thing to me.”
Think of actual pieces of sacred art around the world: the image of Our Lady of Częstochowa in Poland, or Our Lady of the Pillar in Spain, or Guadalupe in Mexico, the Holy Infant of Prague, the many myrrh-flowing icons of the Christian East, and even the items of sacred art here at the Church of the Holy Cross – or think of the restoration of the altar here at the church, or the holy water stoups at the back, or the beautiful new set of green vestments recently given by the estate of Martin and Helen Russo, or the image of our Lord carrying the cross over the altar of repose. All of these artistic creations were dedicated to the glory of God. Moreover, how many believers down through the centuries have found healing or had their faith strengthened and their loyalties confirmed by worshiping God, by venerating his saints, in and by means of these pieces of sacred art?
I remember visiting Mt. Athos – the epicenter of Eastern monasticism – and being struck by the offerings that people had left at various icons, as a testament to this very phenomenon. In some cases, as the offerings accumulated over the centuries, the monks had strung them up on the icons themselves – pieces of money and jewelry, pocket watches and the like. At other Christian shrines invalids have left crutches and wheelchairs as a testament to the healing they received from God there – such as is the case at Lourdes in France and Fatima in Portugal, or at the principal shrine in Midland, Ontario, of the martyrs of north America, some of whose relics are in our own altar here at Holy Cross.
When we dedicate our time, our energy, and our money, to the glory of God, we participate, in a hidden way, in the action – the dynamism – of the cross, because we are making sacrifices, even though they may be small ones, for the glory of God and the salvation of souls – and this is precisely what Jesus does, in a monumental way, on the cross. On the cross, he offers the whole of his life for the glory of God and the salvation of souls. Nor let us forget that whenever we worship God at mass, according to Scripture, we bear witness to this one supreme sacrifice for the glory of God: “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes,” (1 Cor. 11.26).
“Let her alone, let her keep it for the day of my burial,” for “she has done a beautiful thing to me.” “The poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me.”
Lastly, when the Lord says, “The poor you always have with you,” he doesn’t mean that it is okay to forget about the needs of others but, on the contrary, this is a reminder that the kind of love Mary demonstrates by anointing his feet, by doing this extravagant and beautiful thing to Jesus, is the kind of love that does NOT forget the poor, but operates along side the poor and is, as such, an act of solidarity with them, because it is done at one’s own expense. One makes oneself in some way a little poorer every time one makes a sacrifice for the glory of God.
And so here at Holy Cross we do a number of things to help those who are in need. We give food away, we help out at Services of Hope. We sponsor kids for the St. Michael’s Conference, we give money to the Rector’s Discretionary Fund which gets spent on utility bills and medicine and bus passes and such.
But all of these things are done along side of, and are subordinate to, the main thing, “our bounden duty and service,” the proclamation of the Lord’s death in the sacrifice of the mass until he comes again. This is our primary purpose, the very reason that we exist as a community. It is what we owe to God, the debt that we cannot pay other than by means of this peculiar participation in the work of the cross. This is how we crouch on the floor with Mary, anointing the Lord’s feet with costly ointment from the substance of our lives, and wiping his feet with our hair.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.