"For the day of my burial"
Lent V; April 7, 2019
Tau Cross & Passion Cross
People have different reactions to perfume and to perfumed oils. As a singer, I tend to run away from a strong dose of perfume or men's cologne, because it makes it hard to sing. But I love the smell of incense in church, or of olive oil prepared for anointing with a little bit of frankincense and myrrh, such as what we'll use to anoint Imogen when we baptize her today. I don't think I've ever smelled a perfume made with nard; I've read that it has a rich, musky smell and has had many uses over the millennia, in religious rituals and to perfume the body to appeal to a lover (cf. Song of Solomon 1:12 and 4:13).
So imagine the scene: a dinner party at Martha's home. This is so soon after the wonderful experience of Jesus raising her brother from the dead that I'm sure everyone is still quite on edge emotionally: alternating between laughter and bursting into tears. Then sister Mary takes the expensive perfume and anoints Jesus' feet, wiping them with her hair. The perfume fills the room. Lazarus, I imagine, is stunned at his sister's action, realizing that she is showing Jesus the depth of her gratitude that her brother is alive again. Martha may be busy doing the washing up and may have missed the whole thing, although I'm sure she approves. And most of the disciples are stunned but silent; only Judas speaks up, protesting that it's a waste of money that could have been put to better use. I think that the comment that Judas didn't really care about the poor is a cheap shot that didn't need to be inserted; what strikes me is that Judas is like every sourpuss I've ever met who scorns someone else's generosity.
Jesus could have called attention to her generosity. He could have pointed to her gratitude. But instead he talks about his own coming burial, which must be a real downer at a dinner party. "She has kept it for the day of my burial," he said. Part of the preparation of a body for burial in their time was to anoint it, to prepare it with fragrances. Mary may have thought she was looking back to what Jesus had done for her, but Jesus interprets it that she is looking ahead to what he is going to do for her and for the rest of us, too.
The Prophet Isaiah (43:16-21) said not to look back, because God is about to do a new thing. Don't take that verse out of context and say that the Prophet said we should not remember the past. A lot of the Prophet's words evoke the past. Rather, he's saying not to be stuck on what God has done in the past, because God isn't done working yet. Remember what God has done, but don't assume that God will do nothing new. "I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert." God has not run out of miracles.
One of the crosses today is the Tau Cross, which is said to represent the pole that Moses raised in front of the people with a bronze serpent on it; all who looked at it were healed (Numbers 21:5-9). Jesus said, "Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life" (John 3:14-15). So remember what God did for the people through Moses, but be ready for a new thing: instead of a snake on a pole, the Son of God on that pole, so we may be healed and have eternal life.
The other cross today is the Passion Cross, which has points at the end of the four arms. Usually people look at those points and think of the nails that held Jesus to the Cross; that's why it's called the Passion Cross. But when the Worship Design Group was looking at all these crosses and describing what we saw in them, Jim saw something different in this cross. I saw nails; he saw arrows. I saw nails holding Jesus to the Cross; Jim saw arrows pointing us in all directions, urging us to move forward.
When we baptize Imogen, we're going to say to you that you should remember your baptism. Some of you can remember the day you were baptized: you were twelve years old – or older – and were in front of a congregation by a Font or in a baptistery or in a river or somewhere. But many of us cannot remember the day; I have a certificate that tells me I was baptized July 14, 1957. I don't have to remember the event, as long as I remember that it happened. I don't remember Jesus' crucifixion, either, but I'll never forget that he was crucified for me.
We want you to remember your baptism so that you can move on, not stuck in the past but free to move forward. And as Mary anointed Jesus' feet, so we will anoint Imogen's forehead, as a sign that she belongs to him. In a way, it is for her burial, though that is hard to say about one so young and precious. It is her burial because Baptism is a kind of death, death of the life that we would have lived without Jesus.
I don't know that I want to finish with a challenge question so much as with a challenge goal: to get into the habit of remembering your baptism every day, to put the past behind you and to move forward. You can use the baptism stone we give you today, you can use incense or fragrant oil, or any moving water. You can think of something else to help you remember that Christ was nailed to the Cross for you and you were baptized in him so that you can let go of the life you would have lived without Jesus and move forward. Perhaps the question is: What will you do to remember every day your baptism?
Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master