Year C Lent 5: a royal priesthood

The story of Jesus’ anointing is told in all four gospels, although there are differences in the details that each reports. Only John names the woman who performed the prophetic act: Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, of Bethany. Jesus seemed at home in their home; he loved them, and in the last weeks and days before he entered Jerusalem for the last time, theirs was a place of refuge for him, as well as a stepping stone to danger.

The last time Jesus came to Bethany, his disciples told him, “They are trying to stone you, and you would go back?”, and Thomas said, “Fine, we’ll go with you, and die with you there.”

The last time he came to Bethany was just after Lazarus, the brother of Mary and Martha, had died; Lazarus who is sitting at table with Jesus in this next episode, restored and in good appetite.

In between that visit and this, we are told that Caiaphas, the high priest, afraid of the vengeance of Rome, wanted Jesus put to death, one man’s death to save the many from the wrath of the Romans: “It is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed,” and he hardly knew what he was saying, that it would be better for the people to let Jesus die for them. Then, just before his return, the Pharisees gave orders that anyone who knew where Jesus was should tell them, so that they might arrest him. Those who would do Jesus harm were powerful, and they were made angrier still by the people’s loud love of him.

But then, during that last, previous visit, amazing things had happened.

Martha had confessed what she knew,
“Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world,”
and she told him,
“If you had been here, my brother would not have died,”
and Mary echoed her sister’s words:
“If you had been here, he would not have died.”
And then Lazarus walked out of the tomb.

The Gospel of John is the most literary of the gospels, the one which most considers style to be substance, which seeks to convey meaning not only by what it says, but by how it says it. This story is full of shadows. Foreshadowing, as you know, is a dramatic technique whereby something important, a climactic event, is signposted and built up throughout the drama, so that when it arrives, it is as though we knew all along that this was just how it must be, what had to happen.

The washing of feet; the tenderness to the body; Lazarus, sitting at the table eating weeks after he was dead; the outburst by Judas; and the perfume, the nard used to embrace the dead one last time; there are so many shadows to this story. And there is more: the prophetic act of anointing consecrates a person to the service of God, and nominates a king; it is used at baptisms, at coronations, as well as at death’s door.

Over the past couple of weeks, a few people have asked about the oils that we use in the church. Every month, on the first Sunday, we use oil blessed for healing, to anoint those seeking prayer and protection, healing and hope for themselves and those they love. We use it as a sign of that healing: doctors often used olive oil as a balm, as a medicine, in Jesus’ day.

And in baptism, after we die and rise with Christ, after we are washed and wiped, as we are sealed with the sign of the cross we use oil, we are anointed, to mark us as Christ’s own forever. Hear the words that are used by a bishop to consecrate the oil of Chrism:

Eternal Father, whose blessed Son was anointed by the Holy Spirit to be the Savior and servant of all, we pray you to consecrate this oil, that those who are sealed with it may share in the royal priesthood of Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, for ever and ever. Amen (BCP 307)

We are anointed to a royal priesthood, sharing in the life and work of Jesus Christ. We are sealed in his tomb and released to his resurrection. We are anointed, in a prophetic act, we are given a new life, a new direction.

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, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair.
Mary knew that there was trouble ahead. As much as she loved Jesus, she could not keep him safe and she would not ask him not to go to his death in Jerusalem. And now, the authorities threatened even Lazarus, since it was because he lived that many were coming to believe in Jesus, because he did not stay dead.

And in the face of these trials and troubles and danger, they, Jesus’ friends, gave a dinner party, and Martha served, and Mary sat once more at Jesus’ feet, and she bathed him in oil, naming him king, priest, victim.

And Judas had a point, in a way, to question the extravagance of the gift and whether the money could be better spent, but Jesus reminded him, reminded them all, that he did not come only to serve but also to love, to spend time with people, to build relationships, to reciprocate friendship.

When the joy of life is denied, we line up with the priests who would put Lazarus to death simply for being alive out of order, instead of celebrating the restoration of brother to sister, friend to friend.

So, once again, as Martha served, doing what was necessary to make a fine party, Mary sealed the deal from her seat at Jesus’ feet, and he loved them both, and their brother too, and the fragrance of it filled the house. There is no doubt that Mary loved Jesus, there is no other way to understand her actions except through the lens of deep and abiding love, but how much did she know, how much did she realize? Even as she anointed his body with perfume once intended for his burial, Mary must have remembered how he had already overcome death once on her family’s behalf, when he raised up her brother. Even though Jesus said they would not always have him near them, Mary hoped against hope that it wasn’t true.

Did she anticipate his acclaimed entry into Jerusalem, with the palms waving and the people cheering? Did she anoint him king because she expected him to pull off some sort of miraculous, improbable kingly coup?
She knew that it was dangerous. They were bound to arrest him. Then did she expect Jesus to die and remain in the tomb, perfumed and preserved?
Does she expect something else? Is she keeping him sweet smelling so that Martha, who warned him against entering Lazarus’ lair, does not have to worry about the stench from Jesus’ opened tomb? Jesus had already confounded the idea of death as the final act, the last word. Does Mary anticipate the resurrection?

Our anointing at baptism was not to perfume our bodies for the grave. It was to raise us up into new life and to ordain us to a royal priesthood. As we approach Holy Week, with its pomp and pall, betrayal and love, and passion and perfection hung out to dry, even as we approach the cross, we are seeking resurrection. Though we stumble, we are called to continue in hope.

We are a royal priesthood, anointed to share in the ministry of Jesus, to share in the fullness of his life, a life fully lived, with love and mercy, service, humility, friendship, grief, and joy, a life lived not alone, but in the company of friends and family who bring us to life.

Like Mary and Martha, Lazarus and Jesus, like Judas, in the midst of life we know death, and like Mary, in every death, and in every death to self, to fear, to sin, we know that there is the hope of resurrection.

Already, its fragrance fills the house.

About Rosalind C Hughes

Rosalind C Hughes is a priest and author living near the shores of Lake Erie. After growing up in England and Wales, and living briefly in Singapore, she is now settled in Ohio. She serves an Episcopal church just outside Cleveland. Rosalind is the author of A Family Like Mine: Biblical Stories of Love, Loss, and Longing , and Whom Shall I Fear? Urgent Questions for Christians in an Age of Violence, both from Upper Room Books. She loves the lake, misses the ocean, and is finally coming to terms with snow.
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