A sermon preached by the Episcopal Bishop of Pittsburgh, the Rt. Rev. Dorsey McConnell, at the Chrism Mass, Holy Monday, March 25th, 2013, First Lutheran Church, Pittsburgh. For photos from the service, click here. For a printable version, click here.
The Fragrance of the Cross
Six days before the Passover, Jesus therefore came to Bethany, where Lazarus was, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. 2 So they gave a dinner for him there. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those reclining with him at table. 3 Mary therefore took a pound of expensive ointment made from pure nard, and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. 4 But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (he who was about to betray him), said, 5 “Why was this ointment not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?” 6 He said this, not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief, and having charge of the moneybag he used to help himself to what was put into it. 7 Jesus said, “Leave her alone, so that she may keep it for the day of my burial. 8 For the poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me.” (John 12:1-8, ESV)
The first time I anointed someone with holy oil, I was a very young and very nervous priest. She was a lady in her late seventies with a rare blood disease, and her room was in isolation. I was gowned and masked and gloved, and setting up for her communion. She was on serious pain medication which, in spite of the fact that she was dying, had put her in a very good mood. She was chatting away, and I was chatting away, which distracted me from something I should have noticed. You see, I was serving at the time a parish in the Anglo Catholic tradition, and my communion kit amounted to a miniature traveling altar, complete with cross and candles. It was only after I lit the candles that I noticed the two large tanks by her bed, the mask on her face, the sharp sweet ozone-like smell of oxygen everywhere, and I realized I had put us both closer to the gates of heaven than she already was. I had enough sense not to try blowing the candles out, so I just snuffed them out with my thumb and forefinger, giving a little squeak of pain that drew her attention so that she too saw what was going on. She grinned from ear to ear. "Father," she said, "did you almost blow us up?" "I did," I admitted. "Well," she giggled. "How about that?"
For my next act, I uncorked the oil, and what happened next is still mysterious to me to this day. It was a small old-fashioned vial, holding no more than an ounce, but as I poured out a little into my palm then dipped my thumb into it, the room was suddenly filled with the fragrance of frankincense and myrrh. I began the prayers: Savior of the world by thy Cross and precious blood thou hast redeemed us, save us and help us we humbly beseech thee O Lord, and underneath my words, the aroma of the oil grew stronger until, by the time I put my thumb on her forehead, every other scent had gone away– there was no more of the ozone, no more of the snuffed candles, the burnt wick, the hot wax, no more of the antiseptic near-disaster, only the aroma of Christ. She felt the oil, and she leaned into it, and as she did so a tear fell from each of her eyes, and I knew she was completely ready, completely at peace. The communion which followed was I suspect as close to the kingdom of God as I will ever get on this side of heaven.
I have anointed, and chrismated, many people since: some were newborns and some over a hundred, some unconscious and some writhing in pain, at least two infants in incubators, underweight and only hours old; I have chrismated at the same font on the same day, an eighty year old woman and an eight-month old girl, both named Clara. I have anointed a graduate student dying of AIDS and a homeless veteran with emphysema and a dying woman in acute renal failure so swollen with edema I could not see her eyes, who, (the nurses said) began to improve from the moment the oil touched her forehead and who walked out of the hospital two weeks later, a newborn in another sense. At times I know I have mixed up the oils, have chrismated the sick, and anointed the baptized. And I have sometimes anointed the dead: my father, Betsy's father, and on more than one occasion, the bodies of the children of my parish: a twelve year-old-girl drowned in a swimming accident, a seventeen year old boy named Robbie who, unable to bear any longer the pain of his depression, hanged himself in his mother's garage. I anointed him there, on the floor where he lay, next to the lawnmower, while his mother held his hand and smoothed his hair. And in every instance I have noticed this fragrance that fills the room and actually holds in it the answer to the question: what was I doing, all those times, with this stuff smeared on a little flesh, in the sign of the Cross?
First, I think the oil is the word of God applied. It is the word of the Cross ministered wordlessly, the fragrance of His death which triumphs over every other death. Sometimes we, as pastors, stand on the sill of the abyss between heaven and hell and hold the hands of others as we look together into the mysteries of human sorrow, human suffering, immeasurable injustice, incalculable loss. We hold our people and with them face into the dark silence of God's hidden knowledge, about which Luther warned us never to speculate, since to bear God's silence we must sometimes be silent ourselves, and only minister the word of the Cross in love and faith with the instruments God has given us: our hands, our tears, the Word of God who is Jesus, and yes, sometimes this oil. That is the great insight of Mary, the sister of Lazarus, in John's Gospel, as five days before the Cross, she calls into the room with no words at all, the coming passion of the Messiah; without even knowing what she is doing, she announces the death that will overwhelm every other death, the death that overcomes death itself, and proclaims in triumph that it is, and will be, as Paul says, a fragrance from life to life. The smell of it, the tenderness of it, make more sense to Jesus than any words she could say, just as they make more sense to a grieving mother than any words that could come out of our mouths except, perhaps, along with the oil, the naked word of prayer: Savior of the world, by your Cross and precious blood you have redeemed us; save us and help us, we humbly beseech you, O Lord.
Second, this oil insulates the ones to whom we minister from our own false hearts. We share in the losses of our flock, and under the stress of those circumstances we may be tempted to give bad counsel. We may collaborate in the strategies of avoidance we find around us; the false hope given by physicians who cannot bear the thought of medical failure, the denial of family members who cannot face the prospect of loss, and our own need somehow in the name of hope to point to something, anything, but the Cross. And what sort of hope is that? If, when we accompany the gravely ill and the dying, we look anywhere but Calvary, aren't we ignoring the greatest gift God can give us, Himself made flesh to share our suffering, so we can become like him in his death? Are we not then like Judas, in the house of Lazarus, greeting the fragrance of the Cross by changing the subject, dragging an enormous red herring into the room? But the oil, you see, is like the word of God it bears, in that it is not something we do, not something we say. It shuts our mouths, and stops our stupid, anxious advice-giving. It speaks through us, but also beyond us, above us, around us, carrying the ministry of the Cross straight from the heart of the Savior into the body and the soul of His beloved. We are, mercifully for all concerned, pushed out of the way, and made ourselves into grateful recipients of the same grace Christ ministers by our hands.
Finally, this oil, whether of chrism or for the sick, or for absolution or blessing, is the reminder that any pastoral ministry is never about me, and always about us, because it is always about Him. As with the two Sacraments, and other sacramental rites, this oil carries with it the living presence of the Tradition; because it is the fragrance of the Body of Christ, it is also the fragrance of the communion of saints. When I anoint, Mary is with me, drying the oil with her hair. Simon is with me, tremulous and desperate and ultimately faithful. You my brothers and sisters, my fathers and mothers, my mentors and friends in Christ all join, all apply their hands, all point to the Crucified who has redeemed us all. This oil is the reminder that we are never alone, never without the courage of the Church, visible and invisible, not even as I kneel on the cold cement floor of a garage and close the eyes of child. Even there, the triumph of the Cross makes itself known in the fragrance around us, as though the smell itself were the chorus of the saints crying out, It is finished.
As I was writing this sermon I mistyped the word "chrism" several times. Each time I highlighted it for correction, my iPad put up a helpful little banner that read: No replacements found. I couldn't have put it better myself. As we bless these oils together, oils for healing and for incorporation, let us pray for the whole Church, that wonderful and sacred mystery. Let us pray that through their fragrance God will help us talk less and pray more; that He will make us careful, not only with matches, but especially with the souls of those committed to our care; that He will move us out of the way even as He uses us to bless the ones He loves, as together with them and the whole communion of saints we await the day when God will wipe every tear from our eyes; and particularly, that the Almighty will use these oils to keep us always mindful of the one to whom they point, Jesus the Crucified, whose death is the end of death, and on whose life all our lives depend.