PEOPLE OF THE PASSION
SERMON PREACHED BY FR. TONY NOBLE ON PALM SUNDAY 2009
Mark 14:3 “As he sat at table, a women came with an alabaster flask of ointment of pure nard, very costly, and she broke the flask and poured it over his head.”
I think of all the festivals and feasts in the Church year, Palm Sunday is the favourite amongst Episcopalians and Anglicans throughout the world. We love the palm procession and its atmosphere of celebration and perhaps fun, we enjoy the stirring familiar hymns, and of course we all like to receive our palm crosses or branch. Here at All Saints’ we particularly enjoy that this is the one day we enter the Church through the great West Door and see the Church decorated stunningly with palms.
However the Liturgy of this day will not allow us to enjoy the triumphal procession into the Holy City for long . We have now taken beyond the cries of “Hosanna” to the solemn reading of the Passion – and our minds are now firmly fixed on what lies ahead for Jesus.
Palm Sunday is but the beginning of Holy Week, and leads into Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday – which are an interesting prelude to the Great Three Days that begin on Maundy Thursday evening.
I would like us to think for a moment about that crowd in Jerusalem at the beginning of this Holy Week. We can assume that amongst the crowd will be people who follow Jesus through the whole week, as we do. Could we have been them, if we were part of that crowd?
Reflect for a moment on the fourteen Stations of the Cross on the walls of our Church. There are several people on that journey to Calvary. In the Fourth Station, we first encounter Jesus’ Mother. Who can fully comprehend what she goes through this week? Perhaps those of you who are mothers, and fathers, will understand what she feels and what she goes through – particularly of you have cared for a suffering child, or one that has gone through a rough time.
All of us, I’m sure, know what it’s like to suffer with someone we love. To share their sufferings within our hearts – to know the piercing sword that Simeon prophesied for Mary so long ago.
For us men on the other hand, perhaps it is Simon of Cyrene whom we see in Station Five. St Mark’s Gospel describes him as “A passer-by”. He was obviously not wanting to be involved. Perhaps he just came to see what the crowd was on about. But he is suddenly dragged out of the crowd to take another man’s burden. We men may not know the inner pain of Mary, Jesus’ Mother – but we know what it’s like to help another man’s load, to share his burden.
What about Veronica in Station Six? A seemingly practical person moved by Jesus’ suffering, she rushes forward to help. Just a simple and practical act to wipe the sweat and blood from Jesus’ face with a towel. Many of you are practical like Veronica.
Then in Station Eight, the weeping women. Is this empathy we see? Or just a distant sympathy? Or self-pity? Or that it is just the right thing to do? Most of us have done the right thing in our lives – sometimes as an excuse.
The final figure in the fourteen Stations is Joseph of Arimathea. He, like us, is a disciple – but secretly so the Scriptures tell us. He was afraid of being known as a disciple of Jesus. Pray God – we may never be like that! But even though he is like that, he asked for the body of Jesus and laid it in his own unused tomb. Joseph came good in the end, and did something for Jesus that no-one else had thought of. May we, like him, always come good in the end.
Of all these people of the Passion, there is one other who I believe truly represents us.
It is the woman described in Mark 14:3-10: “A women came, and she poured it over his head”. This women and her anointing of Jesus in Holy Week is recorded in all four of the Gospels – though there are differences. St Mark says that it is a prophesy: “She has anointed my body beforehand for burying” (14:8). A prophesy of what is to come at the end of the week.
In St Mark it occurs on Tuesday in Holy Week. It is at Bethany – that town a couple of miles out of the city. The place where Jesus went to be with his friends Mary, Martha and Lazarus. The place of retreat, of refreshment. And it happened at a feast in the house of a man called “Simon the Leper”. Maybe he was one of those ten lepers that were cured? We can understand the wonderful gathering of those who were his friends, the disciples, and the cured, gathering around Jesus – not even knowing what was yet to come. Perhaps still living on the exhilaration of his triumphal entry into Jerusalem? And when she anointed Jesus, those present complained that it was a waste.
If we can see in this woman, a person who loves Jesus and expresses this love in an act of worship and devotion – surely we see ourselves?
St Matthew has the same story, and it happened on the same day. But in St Luke’s Gospel (7:37-50) there is a difference. The incident happens at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry – and he adds a significant point.
The women is described as “A women of the city, who was a sinner”. And at the end of the incident Jesus says: “Your sins are forgiven”. This immediately connects the woman with that woman caught in adultery and about to be stoned, when Jesus made those telling remarks: “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone”. And in the end he said: “Has no-one condemned you woman? Neither do I, go and sin no more”.
So maybe this woman who anoints Jesus is the woman who was caught in adultery? That would have some impact – she who was forgiven much came to worship Jesus and to anoint him in this great week. And although she is a woman of the streets, she surely represents us – for we are sinners, and we have had our sins forgiven by Jesus.
When we come to St John’s account of this (12:1-11) we find some interesting differences. Firstly, the one who complains is Judas Iscariot. The ointment was expensive, he said, and wasted – for the money could have been given to the poor. Secondly, the woman anoints Jesus’ feet, not his head, and wipes them with her hair. If she was a woman of the street, consider the repulsion they must have felt as this woman wipes Jesus’ feet with her hair, having poured ointment and tears on them. It makes the anointing much more profound and meaningful, and fits in with the whole of Holy Week.
But most significantly, for St John the woman is Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus. This fits in with the whole event – it is in Bethany. Mary, Martha, and Lazarus are the three close friends – so it is perhaps Mary of Bethany who is this woman. Maybe she is also the one who had been forgiven much – maybe she was even the one who was about to be stoned? Some scholars think she is Mary of Magdalene. Perhaps she is all of these women.
St John records this incident as following that day when Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. The result of that was one of the other things that caused Jesus to be brought to trial by the authorities. So for St John the account fits in with everything about Holy Week.
Again I say she represents us. For she is the friend of Jesus, who had known his love and power in a personal way – and we are also friends of Jesus and know his power and love.
This woman, who anointed Jesus, has two important truths to tell us.
Firstly: those who know the exact value of things, like Judas, often don’t know the true value of anything.
And secondly, a symbolic act of love is what really matters – like the day when that woman bathed the feet of Jesus with oil and tears and wiped them with her hair.