Holy Communion 3rd April 2022
The Embarrassment of Worship
John 12: 1-8
There is a film which is still spoken of in hushed tones in liturgical circles. It’s so old that my copy is on VHS. It is called This is the Night, and it is the story of a working class Hispanic Roman Catholic church in the United States, as new Christians prepare for their baptism and confirmation at the Easter Vigil. It is quite stunning, not least for the image of several adult candidates kneeling in an octagonal baptismal pool, being completely soaked, which puts our sanitised pouring of water from a shell somewhat into the shade.
But the image which will stay with me is the anointing of the newly baptised with the oil of chrism. In the video the priest takes a whole jug of aromatic oil, pours it in its entirety over the candidate, and smears it over their face, making the biggest sign of the cross you have ever seen. It is as overt a gesture as you can imagine, challenging, an invasion of personal space, and altogether messy and difficult. It is remarkable.
And it is smelly. One of the candidates is interviewed on the video, a week later. She talks about going back to work, and people asking her “What did you do at the weekend?”, and commenting that she smelled nice. She had no option than to tell them about her radical commitment to Christ, in a ceremony where her sins were washed away, where she was made new, received into the family of the church, anointed with the seal of the Holy Spirit, and now carried, literally, the fragrance of Christ.
In our Gospel reading today a huge amount of oil was poured over Jesus. I would suggest that such an event is completely outside our experience, and we would find it embarrassing were it to happen here. In various places I have worked we would do all we could to organise such a thing out of existence. If truth be told, my greatest fear about worship such as ours is that is that we quench the spark of our response to the overwhelming love of God for us by drowning it in decorum and good taste, so that all we have left is a dab of oil and a handy wet wipe to clear up the mess.
In the Gospel we are six days away from the Passover – six days away from Jesus’s death, through which our sins are forgiven, and we are restored to the life of God. Jesus points to this clearly when he says that Mary has anointed him for his burial. Remember that this is soon after Lazarus has been restored to life. They know that Jesus can defy death, and his openly declaring that he would die for their sake will have hit home. His burial rite begins here, and the anointing is described by Jesus as the beginning of the ceremonial. This is a public declaration of his sacrifice.
It is also a public declaration of his kingship. From biblical times until now anointing has been the sign of accession to the throne – it is what makes a king a king – the enthronement comes later. John the evangelist places this incident before Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem, making the point that Jesus rides into the city as an anointed King. It is the King of Kings who will be put to death. His coronation rite begins here.
What is then described is a rational reaction to the wasting of money. The gesture scandalised Judas because of its wastefulness, and his response is echoed down the ages until today. Everything must have its price and its value – yet this event shows that some things cannot be quantified in cash terms alone. When faced with the prospect of losing the one she had come to believe was the resurrection and the life, Mary pours out the most valuable thing she has. It is a fantastically lavish, prodigal, extravagant welling up of love, worship and adoration. I hope, when face to face with my Lord, I would do something similar, not worry that we could have saved 50% of the cost by putting the perfume contract out to tender.
What is going on here is worship, and worship is more than the inculcation of doctrinal truths, and more than the rational application of objective monetary and fiscal policies. Indeed, one writer about the phenomenon of worship calls it ‘a waste of time’. Worship produces nothing, at least nothing which can be assessed, quantified, sold or framed. We put our all not into the production of a product, but into offering our Lord all our adoration, praise, admiration, doubt, uncertainty, amazement, ecstasy - our love.
Not all use of emotion in worship has to descend to sentimentality or emotionalism. There is a part of the creed…roughly where we say …’came down from heaven. And was incarnate for us’ where some people bow. I used to think this was a bit la-di-da, until I reflected that if the one who came down from heaven was standing in front of me right now I would do more than bow…and so at that point I do bow, as a sign that I don’t just believe in the incarnation, but its reality causes a response in me which takes up the whole of my being, even my body.
It is, of course, absolutely right that the church should use its money wisely and not waste it on frivolities. And it goes without saying that we should feed the poor. But here Jesus commends Mary and corrects Judas. Some actions, some truths, are beyond value. As the church now turns its eyes towards the Cross, Jesus challenges us to respond to his supreme sacrifice, his utter gift of unconditional love for us. If, in Passiontide, Holy Week and Eastertide, our response is simply to a reasoned intellectual assent to the truth of the resurrection, then I would suggest that there is a serious imbalance in our discipleship.
If our response causes us to reassess what we do with our material wealth – perhaps by giving more to the poor, and by offering radical support to the church, - and if we engage our emotions as well as our artistic and creative faculties, then perhaps we are moving towards the possibility of giving God our soul, our life, our all. And the fragrance which would spread from the church would cause the whole world to ask “What did you do at the weekend?”Print This Page