Wednesday, 16 April 2014

An anointing (a sermon for 'Holy Wednesday')

Mark 14:3 While he was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, as he sat at the table, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment of nard, and she broke open the jar and poured the ointment on his head. 4But some were there who said to one another in anger, ‘Why was the ointment wasted in this way? 5For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii, and the money given to the poor.’ And they scolded her. 6But Jesus said, ‘Let her alone; why do you trouble her? She has performed a good service for me. 7For you always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish; but you will not always have me. 8She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial. 9Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.’

We’re not even told her name…

Not in Mark or Matthew…

In Luke, in the house of Simon the Pharisee, she is described as ‘a sinner’. She washes Jesus’ feet with tears and ointment and kisses, and she dries them with her hair. She has shown great love, says Jesus to Simon, because she has been greatly forgiven.

In John, we’re in Bethany – at home with Mary, Martha and Lazarus – and it is Mary – Lazarus’ sister – who anoints Jesus’ feet, and wipes them with her hair. Great love: not for sins forgiven, but for a brother brought back to life.

In Mark and Matthew, we’re in Bethany too, in the house of Simon the leper. But here, the woman is an anonymous stranger – no introductions, no name, no history, not even a word spoken – slipping into the story, and just as suddenly leaving it… But of this woman, Jesus says something quite, quite remarkable: ‘Wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.’

And what is it that she has done? The ointment is the same, and the expense – almost a year’s wages for a jar – but this time there are no tears, no wiping away with loosened hair, and it is not Jesus’ feet that she anoints.  This anonymous stranger enters, breaks open the jar, and silently pours the oil over Jesus’ head. While the women of Luke and John have brought gratitude, love and tender care, Matthew and Mark’s woman has come as a prophet: if Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, the anointed one, then it is she who anoints him. Following in the footsteps of Moses, of Samuel, of Elijah, but with a task greater, more sacred, more authoritative than any of them, she has been sent by God to anoint God, to ordain Jesus as priest, to consecrate him as King, to commission him for the way of love, the way of the cross.

And her prophetic work is to pre-figure Jesus’ own passion. Her extravagant, dangerous love, her self-sacrificial service, will strengthen him for his; her unreasonable, use-less ‘waste’ will overflow into his; the suspicion and conflict she provokes will echo around him; and he too, like her, will remain silent in the face of his accusers.

Her work is unsettlingly, profoundly prophetic. But she is also the model of the true disciple. While those around scold and criticise and use concern for the poor as a pretext for their irritation, she knows that this Jesus is one of the poor, that this Christ needs friends, this God walking the way of the cross needs company. She is keeping faith, while those around are losing it; betrayal, denial, abandonment are just around the corner for this Jesus; her faith, her hope, her love, poured over him tonight, will go with him to his death, will be buried with him, will……

But what about us? Where is our ‘way in’ to this powerful story? What place is there for us at the table in Bethany?

Shortly, we will have the opportunity to be anointed ourselves: to have the sign of the cross made, in oil, on our foreheads. Tracing the mark of our baptism: ‘Christ claims you for his own. Receive the sign of his cross. Do not be ashamed to confess the faith of Christ crucified… [R]emain faithful to Christ to the end of your life.’ Tracing a cross-mark, too, from Ash Wednesday: ‘Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ’.

Be faithful to Christ. That is what the sign of the cross means for us. And through the days that follow – through the fear of Maundy Thursday, the darkness of Good Friday, the silence of Holy Saturday – and through those days of fear, darkness, and silence for us and for our world before and after this week – being faithful to Christ is a near-impossible calling. But if the story of this strange, unnamed woman is indeed good news to be remembered, then it is surely to give us courage, strength and hope. Her costly gift is for us too: we too are invited to be anointed with love, for love, and by love – anointed with, alongside, Jesus; anointed for his way of passion and compassion; and anointed by the God who, through a love stronger even than death, can alone bring even what is dead to life.

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