(We dedicated our worship to the Tree of Life Synagogue. Our worship had been planned to culminate in a requiem for our dearly departed, preceded by a blessing with oil. Next week I will preach directly about the sin of anti-Semitism.)
May you be cleansed and blessed, blessed for the purpose God has set for the fullness of your life. A blessing can sometimes be the most significant gift we can give each other. A blessing can be the most significant gift we can receive from each other, and receive from God. Psalm 23 is rich with images of blessing. In particular for today: “You set a table before me in the presence of my enemies, (meaning: in the presence of those who would do me harm,) You anoint my head with oil. My cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy shall pursue me, all the days of my life and forever shall I dwell in the home of the Holy One.”
“You anoint my head with oil” – that’s the image of blessing in this Psalm, and an image you’ll find throughout the Bible. The ritual of anointing is an ancient and powerful way of blessing. That’s what we’re going to be invited to do together soon – a blessing with oil. So allow me to reflect some about the meaning of blessing with oil.
Oil is the rich essence of something. May oils come from seeds. Olive oil, Linseed oil, Coconut oil. Seeds themselves are a powerfully concentrated form of life. But oil is more than that: it’s the extracted essence of that seed. Oils from plants or herbs – Jasmine, Thyme, Basil, Oregano – these are a highly concentrated form of a individual pungency. You make oil by taking heaps of something, pressing it together, crushing, working it, heating it. It takes time and pressure and patience to draw out the rich essence. Once you have the oil, Oil can flavor something or perfume something, or Oil can draw out the flavors of something itself – not just add flavor but draw it out – it usually takes some heat. You see where I’m going with this? Think about the Holy Spirit. Oil can also be fuel, fuel for the fire. Oil is dense with potential for heat and light. With a little spark all that can be unleashed. Or oil, as viscous essence, can help things slide and move. Alright. So, think about how oil is like the Holy Spirit: It’s is a precious substance, it’s the essence of the seeds of things, it can give flavor and fragrance; it can also draw out our flavor and fragrance; if we give provide the spark, it can ignite with power … it can also just grease the wheels and help everything move well together. So, you can see why oil in the ancient Hebrew world was a medium of blessing. Pouring oil on someone, with prayer, was a way to bless a guest or to bless someone for some sacred purpose. Oil was how you anoint kings and anoint prophets.
Now, at this point, let me remind us that “Christ”, or “Messiah” means “the Anointed one.” And let me remind us too that “Christians” was a term that meant “Little Christlings” or “Little Anointed Ones.” This was a derogatory term, it was a diminutive word said with a sneer. The reason “Little Christlings” was said with a sneer was because the anointing going on with Jesus was not very king like. Jesus, as the anointed one, the blessed one, was busy blessing all kinds of the wrong kinds of people, and blessing them for the purpose of blessing and healing the untouchable people and the untouchable places of the world. Proper anointing was for kings, not for sex workers, not for those society deems queer. And worse than that, not only did Jesus go around blessing the wrong kinds of people, look at who Jesus allowed to bless him!
Our Gospel story from Mark (Mark 14:3-9) is about a scandalous act of anointing and blessing that flips the very meaning of “Messiah” or “Christ,” the Anointed One. In the Gosple of Mark, it’s a secret that Jesus is the Anointed One. It’s almost a running joke, the way that no one gets it, a puzzle that no one figures out. No one except one person: someone who actually anoints him. And this one who christened the Christ, was a woman, not even dignified with a name, somehow. This is outrageous to the disciples, but “wonderfully significant” for Jesus.
Her blessing of him, Jesus explains to his outraged disciples, was an act of generosity akin to feeding the hungry and cancelling debts. But more outrageous than all this is that the meaning of the oil with which she blessed him, was to prepare his body for death. Mark is very specific, the oil is spikenard. Spikenard is an oil used to anoint bodies for burial.
This is another longstanding use of oil, which I happened to leave out earlier: Oil as a way of preparing and blessing a body for burial. This was not the meaning of Anointed One that everyone expected. The Messiah was meant to be a king, not thrown in among the queers and criminals. The Messiah was to bless the victorious, not to bless the losers. So overall, this story about anointing is part-in-parcel of the fact that when it comes to what Jesus discloses about the Divine, what he discloses about meanings of blessing – who it’s for, what it’s for, who it’s from – is just blown way open by grace.
Remember the Beatitudes, the famous blessings that Jesus gave: “Blessed are those who mourn – they will be comforted Blessed are the humble in spirit – theirs is the Realm of Heaven Blessed are the meek – they will inherit the earth Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice, for a world of right relations between people and with our God – for they will be filled Blessed are those who are persecuted because they hunger and thirst for justice – theirs is the Realm of Heaven. Blessed are you when people revile you because you are following the Way of Jesus – rejoice, your reward is great. Blessed are those who share mercy, for they will receive mercy Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called Children of God.”
May you be so blessed, my friends. Whoever you are, where-ever you need blessings, whatever has been left out of blessing … may you be blessed
May you be cleansed and blessed, blessed for the purpose God has set for the fullness of your life.
(Delivered Oct 29, 2018, at First Congregational Church of Walla Walla, by Rev. Nathaniel Mahlberg)