John 12:1-8 - Mary Anoints Jesus
Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, ‘Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?’ (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, ‘Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.’
Introduction: Since the earliest days of Temple worship in Jerusalem and within church worship olive oil has been used for anointing. It is an outward and visible sign of God’s actual anointing of a person, setting them apart (consecration) for ministry or Christian service. Furthermore, within the Church’s ministry it is used in Baptism, Confirmation, for healing and in preparation for death and burial. In short, it is an outward act signifying an intervention by God at significant moments in the spiritual journey of God’s people.
Gospel: Today’s Gospel extract marks the beginning of the last phase of Jesus’ life and ministry, just 6 days before the Feast of Passover at which Jesus was crucified. Passover, of course, was the annual reminder of the liberation of the Hebrew people from slavery in Egypt around 1200BC, under the leadership of Moses. In particular, it focussed on the passing over of the Hebrew dwellings by an angel of death so that they were spared the death of their first-born son. This was to be the last of the 10 plagues of Egypt and became the means by which the Hebrew slaves escaped. Poignantly, in order that the inhabitants of these dwellings were unharmed the blood of an unblemished lamb was to be daubed on the door lintels. Thus began the notion that the blood of an innocent lamb would save people from death. And hence, the words of our liturgy, ‘Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world, have mercy on us.’
Also, poignantly, today’s Gospel account occurs at the home of Martha, Mary and their brother Lazarus, whom Jesus had recently raised from the dead after 4 days in a cave tomb. It’s the context in which Jesus had said to Martha, “I am the Resurrection and the Life. Whoever believes in me, though they die, will live.”
You can imagine how grateful they were to Jesus for having restored Lazarus back to them from the grave. And Jesus loved this particular family, which is probably why he chose to stay with them for what he knew would be the last days of his life. Mary’s anointing of Jesus’ feet was likely to have been a sign of their own love for Jesus as well as their deep gratitude.
Mary used nard for this foot anointing, which was extremely expensive. It’s the sort of thing a family would have to save for some 30 years to buy, perhaps for an extravagant funeral. So, this was an act of extraordinary devotion and gratitude.
But Judas Iscariot objects as he held the funds for the disciples. “Couldn’t this perfume have been soled and the money given to the poor?” No doubt once he had taken his share.
But Jesus tells Judas to leave her alone as she was, in fact, doing something far more significant than Judas realised. Through his hardness of heart, Judas had become blind to the deeper things of God, and was, therefore, unmoved by Mary’s act of devotion. She was, in fact, anointing Jesus for his death and burial. For this purpose she had bought it. She had been responsive to the promptings of the Holy Spirit, even if she had not grasped the gravity of what she was doing. She was following the divine movement within her, which Jesus immediately recognised.
Attentiveness to God’s activity: One aspect of our Christian calling is to be attentive to God’s activity in our midst. For this, our hearts need to be open to God with a spirit of humility. It is a spiritual act made possible by the divine activity of God’s Holy Spirit within us. It’s a good discipline, having repented of any sin of which we are aware, to ask to be filled with God’s Holy Spirit afresh. In so doing we become equipped to recognise God’s activity amongst us. As we learn the practice of being attentive, so we begin to notice what’s happening in the spirit – the deeper and hidden, though no less real, things.
The Ministry of Anointing with oil: Today, during the administration of Holy Communion, I will, with support of two others be available for anointing with oil; that is, oil which was consecrated by Bishop Steven last Maundy Thursday for the purpose of facilitating God’s healing. During this brief act of anointing, we will be attentive to the moving of God’s Spirit, who may direct our prayers and thoughts. In short it is an opportunity for you to come to God for healing or other spiritual work, the oil being the outward and visible sign of the inward and spiritual activity of God through this act.
Please, do come and allow God to meet you at your point of need. This ancient ministry, instituted by God, is there for your blessing.
Conclusion: On this Passion Sunday, as we journey with Christ through the last two weeks of his life, through the valley of the shadow of awful suffering and death, we can be assured that his act of sacrificial love, as the Lamb of God, saves us from the bitter pains of eternal death and leads us into the new resurrection life in all its glory and fulness. May God lead you on this journey and bring you to a joyful and renewed Easter morning.
The Revd Hugh Ellis, Vicar & Team Rector