(Updated 2021-03-28: Added audio)
St. Mary’s Anglican Church, Palm Sunday, March 28, 2021 Canon Claude Schroeder
From today’s reading of the Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ according to Mark:
“There were some who said to themselves indignantly, “Why was the ointment thus wasted?For this ointment might have been sold for more than three hundred denarii, and given to the poor.” And they reproached her. But Jesus said, “Let her alone; why do you trouble her? She has done a beautiful thing to me….she has anointed my body beforehand for burying. And truly, I say to you, wherever the gospel is preached in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.” (Mark 14. 46, 8-9)
In an article entitled, “The Christian Art of Dying”, the British Orthodox priest and theologian John Behr argues that, “in discussing the ages of the spiritual life, nothing is as important or as difficult as facing the reality of death.”
I don’t think any of us would dispute this. We shift nervously in our seats whenever the subject comes up, but it’s a subject that has certainly reared its ugly head under COVID, where from some, stepping outside the doors of one’s house, means courting death.
I saw a mildly amusing, what they call “a meme” this week. It was picture of that tanker that is blocking the Suez Canal which is causing our gas prices to sky-rocket. On the shore next to colossal tanker there is comparatively speaking miniscule wheeled bull dozer. On the bow of this ship you see in capital letters, “MY ANXIETY FROM ALL THE DEATH AND COVID” and above the bull-dozer in lowercase letters the word, “mindfulness,” which along with meditation is being touted as the great answer to the problem of our anxiety in the face of death. Deep breaths everyone, deep breaths! No amount of deep breathing and meditation is going to make this go away.
Here we are, at the beginning of another Holy Week in “lock-down” with no end in sight from “all the death and covid,” where by God’s grace we are seeking to enter more deeply into the mystery of Christ’s suffering, his dying, and rising again.
Why is this business of facing the reality of death so important and so difficult?
John Behr writes, “Very few people today (in the West) see death. We know that people die, and we see their bodies. But compared to the situation a century ago, there is a marked difference. At the beginning of the twentieth century, more people would have had one or more of their siblings die during their childhood, and one or more parent dying before they reached adulthood (and now, our parents live on till we ourselves are beyond the life-expectancy of previous ages). Deceased siblings, parents, friends, and neighbors would have been kept at home, in the parlour, being mourned and waked by friends and neighbors, washed and prepared for burial, until being taken from home to church, where they would be commended to God and interred in the earth.
Today, however, the corpse is removed as quickly as possible, to the care of the death professionals, the morticians, who embalm the body, to make it look as good as possible, which is then placed under rose-tinted lights in a funeral home so that they look alive, in the hope that we might make a comment such as ‘I’ve never seen them looking so good’! The casket is then often closed during the funeral service.
Or, as is increasingly happening today, there IS no funeral service: the body is disposed of in a crematorium, and then, later on, there is a ‘memorial service’, in which the person is celebrated without being bodily present. In a very real sense, we no longer see death today: we don’t live with it, as an ever-present reality, as has every generation of human beings before us. This shows itself in so many ways. Just as one example, consider the way in which we now speak of death as being a kind of moral failure: so and so ‘lost the battle with cancer’.” (or COVID)
Now, why might we say is this a problem?
John Behr writes, “If it is true that Christ shows us what it is to be God in the way that he dies as a human being, then, quite simply, if we no longer ‘see’ death, we no longer see the face of God. What it is to be human and what it is to be God-death and life-are shown together, in one concrete being with one ‘face’,” that of our Lord Jesus Christ on the Cross.
This is the face that is shown on the icon card, “The King of Glory” which was sent out at the beginning of Lent. Here we contemplate the face of Him who is truly human, and who is truly God.
By extension to look into the face of a dead human being, is to look into the face of Jesus Christ, who by “his death has trampled down death”, and also “destroyed him who has the power of death, that is the devil, and deliver all those who through their fear of death were subject to life-long bondage.” (Hebrews 2. 14-16)
So when we look death through the lens of Christ’s death, what is it that we in act see?
The first thing that we see is that death is not a natural part of the circle of life, as some would have us believe. What we see is that is that death, as St. Paul wrote, is “the enemy.”(1 Cor. 15.26) Death is a tragedy. Death is a catastrophe. Death is what happens when we turn away from our creator who is our source of life. Death, in other words, is a consequence of sin. It doesn’t how matter rich and famous and powerful you are, or how healthy and organic you eat, how often you work out, how fit you are, or even how good look, and how, good, kind, righteous and religious or even “spiritual” you try to be, all of us, one day are going to die. Death shows us the full weakness of our human nature, which makes life, from the day we are born until the day we die, a struggle for survival, where we to keep death at bay for as long as possible.
So what difference does the death of Christ make for our view of death, and how we might approach our own dying?
According to 8th century theologian, Maximos the Confessor, by his death Jesus Christ has not removed death, but rather has changed the use of death.
What does this mean?
According to John Behr, “It means that Jesus who willingly embraced the suffering and death on the Cross has enabled us to use our death actively , rather than being passive and frustrated victims of the giveness of our mortality. A new path for living in the face of death has been opened up to us, and which begins for us in baptism we unite ourselves to Jesus Christ in his death, which was a death to sin, and then dying to self, dying to sin, we take up our cross, and life is no longer a struggle for survival, no longer doing what we can to preserve and extend life, but then laying down of our lives we love no longer for ourselves but for Christ and our neighbour. In doing this, our new existence grounded in the self-sacrificial love of Christ has been shown to be the life and very being of God himself.”
“Our task today is not just to proclaim our faith in an increasing secular world; it is, rather, to take back death, by allowing death to be ‘seen’, by honoring those dying with the full liturgy of death, and by ourselves bearing witness to a life that comes through death, a life that can no longer be touched by death, because it has been entered into by death, a life that comes by taking up the cross.”
Which brings to the woman in today’s Gospel lesson who in the days leading up to Jesus suffering and death, poured 300 denarii worth of perfume over the body of Jesus. A denarius was the daily wage of common laborer. We are talking here about almost a year’s worth of wages. You can do the math as to how much money was lying in puddle on the floor at Jesus’ feet.
What had this woman just done?
She had just made visible the death of Jesus, and in this action where she poured out her life blood upon Him, mirrored back to Jesus something of the meaning of His impending death, where He would literally pour out his life blood for her. Jesus said, “She has done a beautiful thing to me…. she has anointed my body beforehand for burying. “ (Mark 14: 6,8)In anointing the Body of Jesus before he died, and not afterwards, she had reversed the accepted cultural practice.
What we have here is a wonderful picture of what the Church is up to in Holy Week. This is where in costly acts of devotion, in the prayer, the repentance, the love, the praise, the thanksgiving that will be poured out this week, we are mystically anointing and uniting ourselves to the crucified, risen, ascended and glorified Body of Jesus Christ. It seems to the world and to some in the church a little excessive, and so much a waste of time, energy, and money that is better spent elsewhere. But hear what the Lord says, “Let her alone; why do you trouble her? She has done a beautiful thing to me.” ( Mark 14.6) Don’t let anyone interfere you. This love, this intimacy between the you and the Lord is very precious in His sight.
But it doesn’t stop there.
Our costly devotion to the Lord, spills over, as so much spilled ointment on the floor, into costly devotion to one another.
All of us, in one way or another, are dying. We are having to face up not only to our physical deaths, and the deaths of those we love, but the death of our youth, and the death of our hopes and the death of our dreams for the future.
An important part of my priestly ministry is to anoint and pray for people at these critical junctures of their lives, where sickness and death make sit’s presence felt.
Why might you ask is the point of this anointing? The Church anoints the sick and the dying that they might know the presence of Jesus Christ, who has promised to see them through their sickness and their death, so that might continue in faith, hope, and love, and gratitude, and not be swallowed up by anger and bitterness.
Who wants to die angry and bitter?
But this business of anointing is something that all of us participate in, as members of the royal priesthood. We are called through our words and actions to anoint one another before we die, and as we die, with the oil of God’s mercy and loving kindness, that all may know, specifically and concretely, the presence and the power of the One, suffered, died, and rose again for us.
- For further insights into “The Christian Art of Dying” from which I have quoted liberally in this sermon, go to: https://frjohnbehr.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/07/Behr-Christian_Art_of_Dying.pdf