Palm Sunday, 10th April 2022
What can you smell? Hopefully you can smell the incense but that may depend as to how much aftershave or perfume you put on today! Even when primary school children come on visits and we don’t use incense they can still smell something about the building and one of them at least normally comments on it. At the end of a Sunday I reek of incense I’ve been immersed in it so much. And that’s sort of the point of it. One of the beautiful images in II Corinthians, which we’ve just finished looking at in our Tuesday evening study group, is that we, God’s people, are to be the “aroma of Christ.” We’re to smell of Jesus! Paul gives some more details of the purpose of this aroma: “among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing; to the one a fragrance of death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life,” (II Corinthians 2:15). Our smell is to remind those who love God of their heavenly destiny; it will remind those who don’t love God of what they’re missing out on.
There’s other reasons we use incense in worship too. As the smoke rises it is used by the Psalmist as a symbol of prayer (Psalm 141:2). In the Old Testament rites in the Temple, our Lord would have been familiar with incense being offered: indeed the wise men offer it to Him at His birth as a sign that He is a priest, our eternal high priest (St Matthew 2:11). In the New Testament St John receives the vision of what Heaven looks like and we see incense being offered before the throne of God (Revelation 8:3). We believe when we gather for Mass that our worship of God here today anticipates what we will offer in eternity and unites us with the worship offered by the angels and saints already.
This is why the chief expression of Christian worship is the Mass: it propels us forward to the eternal. We see this in the way Jesus tells us to do it, as we heard in the reading of the Passion just now: “I shall not drink wine until the Kingdom of God comes.” As we commemorate that which Jesus did on the night before He died, and what He offered when His hour had come and when He offered Himself on the Cross to the Father, this remembering gathers us up in to the eternal offering of the Son and we know this too is how we must live. Offered. Poured out. Broken. Sacrificed. “The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit, a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise,” (Psalm 51:17). We gather on Thursday at 8pm to remember the night on which Jesus gave us the priesthood, the Mass and a new commandment to love one another.
One of the moments in which the smell around our Lord is noted is when oil is poured on His feet. St John records, as we’ll hear at Mass tomorrow, that Mary of Bethany, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, poured “very costly ointment, pure nard” on the feet of the Lord (St John 12:1-11). She used her hair to wipe them. This extravagant and humble gesture radiates out and St John notes, “the house was full of the scent of the ointment.” Our Lord links this anointing to his future burial. Indeed it was for such a purpose that Mary Magdalene and others went on Easter Sunday morning to anoint our Lord’s body as part of the burial rites. But their plans were to be disrupted by the Resurrection as we’ll find out next Sunday.
I want to think now about the oils the Church continues to use in our own day. On Tuesday folk from Bp Jonathan’s parishes from across London will gather for the Chrism Mass. It’s linked to the events of Holy Week and especially Maundy Thursday when Jesus institutes the priesthood and bids us offer bread and wine in memory of Him. At the Chrism Mass on Tuesday the Bishop will get his priests to renew their ordination promises and he will bless the three types of oil used in the Church’s rites: Catechumen, the Sick and Chrism. All three are olive oil and the priests then take them from the Chrism Mass and bring them back to the parishes to be used for the next twelve months.
We were reminded in the Passion reading earlier that after the Last Supper Jesus left the city of Jerusalem and went to its outskirts, to the Mount of Olives, where there was also the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus prays, endures the agony of the impending suffering, and is then arrested. Well, note it is the Mount of Olives and to this day we see an array of olive trees there, the fruit of which is used to make oil. Gethsemane means “oil press.” The olives are squashed and pressed to produce something better. So, by the Lord’s wounds we have been healed; by our trials and sufferings we are purged, cleansed, refined.
Well, lets look at the different oils:
The Oil of Catechumen is used in preparation for someone’s baptism. Oil is often used in the Scripture to begin a ministry: Samuel anoints first Saul to be King (I Samuel 10) and then his successor David (I Samuel 16:1-13). We can take comfort from the case of David because he seems to be the unlikely candidate: Jesse, his dad, presents all the other brothers first, but it is God who choses according to what He has given to each. St Paul rejoices that this mark of the Holy Spirit is given to all the baptised: “this is the pledge of our inheritance towards redemption as God’s own people to the praise of His glory,” (Ephesians 1:13).
The Oil of the Sick is used to anoint those who are seriously sick or whose health has deteriorated. Someone might be anointed a few times but it’s not something for every time we have a slight headache. In the New Testament, in St James’ letter, we read: “Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the Church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord,” (5:14). Hence the practice of the Church. We remember in St John 9 also that when Jesus heals the man born blind, he smoothers his eyes with mud composed of spittle and dust from the earth. This anointing is usually accompanied by receiving Holy Communion and may include making a Confession especially if the person is near to death. This is one of the seven Sacraments, imparting health and forgiveness, and union with the sufferings of Christ through the outward and visible sign of the anointing.
The Oil of Chrism isn’t just olive oil. It has balsam added to it which adds an aroma to it. The rite of consecration involves the bishop breathing on to it, reminding us of the Spirit’s activity. The whole economy of using oil in the rites of the Church comes from the fact that we follow Jesus Christ, Christ meaning “anointed one.” “The Spirit of the Lord has anointed me,” Jesus says, quoting from the prophecy of Isaiah (St Luke 4:18; Isaiah 61:1). We are Christians because we are followers of the Anointed One and we ourselves have been anointed. Hence, the first thing that happens to someone who has just been baptised is to anoint them with the Oil of Chrism. Somewhat flippantly I refer to it as the “Church’s superstar oil” because it confers and recognises a dignity on all those who are given the wonderful opportunities of being reborn as God’s children’s. Chrism is also used when someone is confirmed and when someone is ordained.
As well as these three holy oils we all need the soothing balm of God’s grace to be poured on us. We make bad decisions just as we see others doing time and time again in the Passion we’ve heard read earlier. The High Priests know Jesus is saying He is the Son of God and they call this blasphemy and condemn Him. The crowds choose Barabbas rather than Jesus: it’s mind blowing that they would rather set free a condemned criminal rather than the Prince of Life but there we are! Peter denies ever having known Jesus even though he protests he would never do it when Jesus foretells it.
But are we really so different? Human beings so often make the same decisions time and time again and are confused that they end up with the same results. We need the joy of the Gospel to renew us, we who have the life of Christ in us. We see the dilemma our Lord is in in the Passion we’ve just heard read: our Lord goes to pray by himself and says, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me. Nevertheless, let your will be done, not mine.” An angel comes and ministers to our Lord, reminding us of the same ministry He receives in these forty days of Lent during His fasting, temptations and trials (St Luke 4:1-11). We are offered the same comfort as the Psalmist reminds us: “the Lord will give His angels charge of you to guard you in all your ways. On their hands they will bear you up, lest you dash your foot against a stone,” (Psalm 91:11-12).
“My head thou dost anoint with oil and my cup overflows,” so the hymn goes based on the twenty third psalm. We might smell of oil if it was poured all over us and that wouldn’t be a bad thing if it gave us a chance to talk about God and all the amazing things He does for us. Brothers and sisters, this is the first full Holy Week we’ve been able to celebrate after two years of being it mucked about with! May it be to us a means of comfort and a strengthening of our resolve to follow the Lord. May we then be refreshed as the “aroma of Christ.” Now this doesn’t mean literally we smell of Jesus, but it does mean we are to give off in a visible and noticeable way our having been reborn to eternal life and our walking with Christ to His Cross. Amen.