Fifth Sunday of Lent - Choral Eucharist

  • Preacher

    Precentor - Canon Gilly Myers

  • Readings

    John 12.1-8

Being anointed with aromatic oil can be a powerful experience, and not merely on a religious or symbolic level.

Some of us here will have benefitted from aromatherapy, and know how much more invigorated or relaxed or peaceful we were afterwards, depending on the essential oils and methods that were used.

Aromatic oils are also used in worship. The oil that we use at healing services is often mixed with lavender oil. At baptism, confirmation and the ordination of Priests and Bishops, oil of chrism is used - which is a good quality olive oil with spices added. Both fragrances lift the spirit, and add sense of smell to the memory of the prayer, ministry, and work of God in our lives, that are all associated with the anointing. 

Some years ago, when the Common Worship initiation services were being revised, there was great excitement about a video (some of you might just about be able to remember videos!) entitled This is the Night. It was all about baptism and confirmation at Easter time, and amongst the very striking practices that emerged from this particular Christian Community, was the way that they did the anointing with oil of chrism after baptism or confirmation.

Last week we had a baptism at the 11.00 am Sunday service. I was down at the font, and know that when the anointing took place, the priest put his finger or thumb into a neat little phial of oil, and anointed the child with this fairly small amount. This is what you might expect to be happening.

In the video This is the Night, by contrast, a whole jugful of oil was poured over the head of each newly initiated person, and rubbed right in by the priest. This was the oil of chrism. In essence, the oil of chrism smells absolutely wonderful. Can you just imagine what you would smell like if a jugful of aromatic oil had been poured over your head? And this is precisely what these new Christians in This is the Night were saying about it – that beautiful fragrance stayed around with them for days (even after showering) – and it is something that they would never forget. We all know, of course, just how powerful the sense of smell can be for our memories, and of the connections we make with them.

You might be interested to know that whenever Archbishop Justin presides at episcopal ordinations here, at Southwark Cathedral he, too, pours a jug of oil over the head of the newly consecrated bishop – with precisely the same powerful effect. 


And so, we have to imagine in our senses this morning, being transported to a home in Bethany, that has been filled with the heady scent of a perfume made of pure nard.

Nard is an aromatic, amber-coloured, essential oil – derived from the root and spike of a Himalyan plant called a Spikenard. Over the centuries it has been used not only as a perfume, but also in traditional medicine and in religious ceremonies. It stimulates the immune system, and relaxes both body and mind. It is usually sourced from Nepal, China and India, hence its expense expressed in the narrative.

We have met this family before: Mary, Martha and Lazarus. In Luke chapter 10, we found Martha at home, busy and distracted with household tasks, while her sister, Mary, sat at Jesus’ feet whilst listening to him. Martha was annoyed by Mary, and Jesus had to intervene.

In the previous chapter of John’s Gospel, Lazarus – the brother of Mary and Martha – was raised from death after having been dead for at least four days.   

Now, again, Martha is busy serving the guests – but where is Mary?

This time she is not simply sitting at Jesus’ feet, she is anointing his feet with a pound of pure nard, and has let down her hair to wipe them. In Jesus’ time and culture, a woman would let down her hair only for her husband in private, or in grief. Letting it loose at dinner like this was nothing short of shocking to those who witnessed the spectacle.

In the way that families are, Martha might well have had something to say to her sister – but Judas gets in first this time with a critical question: ‘Why was this perfume not sold…and the money given to the poor?’

Jesus’ response to Judas might come as a surprise.  Biblical scholars say that this part of the passage is difficult to translate, which might be part of the problem – but he seems to be saying one of two things:

  • Is Jesus saying that Mary’s act is prophetic, without her realising it? From what Jesus says, he understands her to have been keeping the perfume to anoint his body after he died, but she is doing so somewhat early. Her hair is let loose, as though in grief.
  • Alternatively, Jesus could be saying that as Mary has the nard, she should keep what is left of it for his burial, and not sell it to give the proceeds to the poor.

In either case it isn’t easy to explain Jesus’ response, given his repeated statements in the Gospels about the importance of the poor, and their blessed status in the kingdom of heaven.

Despite what is said in parentheses about Judas being a thief, Judas does have a point. 300 denarii was about a year’s wages for a worker; to spend something this costly on someone’s feet was a vast extravagance.  

On the other hand, Jesus had raised Mary’s brother, Lazarus from death. What would any of us given in gratitude for that?

Indeed, when Nicodemus came to anoint Jesus’ body a week later, after his death, he brought with him 100 pounds of myrrh and aloes – it was a burial fit for a king. Mary had only one pound of the nard, in comparison. In each of these, also, there are echoes in both extravagances of the huge surfeit of wine that was created from water at the wedding at Cana, and of the sheer abundance of bread at the feeding of the five thousand. For the one who gives life in abundance, can any gift be too extravagant?

An uncomfortable dichotomy

The established Church lives on with the same uncomfortable dichotomy. To the Lord of life, the Creator of the universe and the Spirit of truth we want to bring of our very best to worship. We invest in fabulous buildings and spaces, such as this; in vestments (these amazing works of art that some of us have the privilege of wearing), bespoke furniture and fittings, choirs and organs, and so on. Yet interwoven with our lives, and quite literally around our worship space huddled in doorways, on stairways and under the railway arches, are gathered neighbours who are poor, homeless, vulnerable and needy. 

It is an enormous challenge and responsibility to get the balance right; the opposing standpoints seem quite irreconcilable.  And if we were ever to be feeling comfortable with our position, then we should be hearing warning bells.

Walking the way of the Passion

But now, let us return to that fragrance infused home at Bethany six days before the Jewish feast of the Passover. That would make it the Saturday evening – the end of the Sabbath day. This is the start of the Holy Week that leads to Passover – the week that will be Jesus’ last.

In our liturgical time – the way that we enter into the devotions of Holy Week – we begin Holy Week on Palm Sunday (ie next Sunday). Today, however, with the anointing at Bethany, we begin to enter into Christ’s passion. Today, with the heady, fragrant aroma of essential oils held in our thoughts, we begin to contemplate the path on which Jesus has set out to walk resolutely towards his own death and passion.

In the days and weeks to come, let us consider walking with Jesus, as he makes his way to Jerusalem.