April 2, 2023
The Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday
April 2, 2023
The Rev. R. Allan McCaslin
Readings: Isaiah 50:4-9a; Psalm 31:9-16; Philippians 2:5-11; Matthew 26:6-16
From the Gospel according to Matthew, “A woman came to (Jesus) with an alabaster jar of costly ointment, and poured it on his head …” I speak to you in the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Typically on Palm or Passion Sunday when we begin our Holy Week journeys together, I have selected the story of Jesus’ “Cleansing of the Temple” as our gospel reading (Matt. 21:12-17) and the focus of the day’s short sermon. That particular story where Jesus quotes the Prophet Isaiah saying, “My house shall be a house of prayer” has served as both a wonderful introduction to Holy Week as well as, a poignant reminder that not only must this Church be a place of prayer, we, too, need to be people of prayer.
Weeks ago, however; when looking ahead and saying my prayers asking what the Holy Spirit might desire to say to us on this particular Passion Sunday, 2023, the story of the woman anointing Jesus with a costly ointment came to mind. And as time went on, that story kept nudging me more and more often in my prayers. And you know, I learned a long time ago that it is fruitless to argue with the Holy Spirit. And so, that lesson was selected as today’s sermon text. As it turns out, that urging of the Spirit to offer this particular gospel story gives us something to ponder that much more deeply as we prepare to walk the Way of the Cross this week.
See what transpired at that dinner table in Simon’s house at Bethany, is one of those stories that appears in all four gospels. Now each evangelist tells the story a little differently. John names the perfume as “Nard.” Luke makes mention that the woman “was a sinner,” but Matthew and Mark simply focus on the act of anointing and the response of those present. However you read this story, its message is clear: this anointing foretells Jesus’ own burial. And yet, there is an even deeper message here that challenges us, and it all has to do with the ointment itself.
Nard, or “Spikenard” as it is more commonly known especially, in the Old Testament, was an outrageously expensive perfume. Harvested from the slopes of the Himalayas and brought to the Middle East, it was used in Egypt and Israel, as well as by the Romans and the Greeks, as a soothing balm. Its pungent aroma was like incense and was known to relieve insomnia, aches and pains, and relax the mind in times of deep distress. And its smell was so strong that just a few drops would fill an entire house with its scent. Scholars tell us that in today’s terms, a small vial of Nard would cost about $30,000. So, it’s no wonder why some of those present saw this act of anointing as wastefully extravagant. And I guess it could be considered wasteful for those who only look at the surface. But, no, this act was far deeper and more meaningful for the woman and Jesus, and especially, for you and me.
See, this woman’s action affirmed her perception that the one being anointed will be the one crucified; that the one bathed in this rich perfume is God incarnate, the redeemer of the world. She saw what the others present on that evening could not yet see. She understood what Jesus had been saying about what will happen in Jerusalem later this week. And so, her action is a model not of extravagant waste, but rather, of extravagant love and extravagant insight as to who Jesus is. Hers is an act of deep devotion – a devotion marked by, of all things, the smell and presence of perfume. And therein lies our challenge on this Passion Sunday.
Throughout this Season of Lent, we have been challenged to ask ourselves, “What’s in my heart?” and seek to be Christ’s light and reconciling presence in our communities and throughout the world. We have been urged to step forward and speak up for and demand that our communities uphold God’s justice and values. In other years, we were urged to be people of prayer. But today’s story urges us to be a healing and redeeming fragrance – a fragrance so strong it permeates our communities. A fragrance so rich in God’s grace, mercy, forgiveness and love that simply by our presence alone, others see Christ and desire to know him as redeemer and friend.
This story is a reminder of the words of St. Paul who shared in his 2nd letter to the Corinthian Church (2 Cor. 2:14-15) “But thanks be to God, who in Christ … and through us spreads in every place the fragrance that comes from knowing him. For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing” (emphasis added). We are, friends, – our lives are – called to be the aroma, the fragrance, the essence of Christ’s redemption, the very essence of him whom St. Paul described in today’s reading from Philippians as one who humbled and emptied himself in order that we and all creation might have new life. And so must we.
As we journey through this holiest of weeks, may God open our hearts and minds to grasp that he who walks before us, that he in whose footsteps we place our own, forever calls us to be not only his light and agents of reconciliation through what we think, say and do, but also, by our very presence be his very presence. A presence that like perfume is pleasing to the senses and enhances every interaction, every encounter, with every person we meet today and every day. May this year’s journey together to the Cross be a fragrant time of new birth, new life and grace. Amen.