I once took some spikenard to church.
The oil had lost much of its pungency in the 10 years since I had bought it. And I only had a 5ml bottle. But it was still plenty strong enough.
It was two weeks before Easter, Passion Sunday. And by “passion,” I mean “suffering” – because that’s what the word originally meant in Latin. That Sunday, and the two weeks that follow it, are when the church remembers Jesus’s suffering and his death on Good Friday.
The Bible reading was about a woman called Mary (not Jesus’s mother). She had a pint – note: a pint – of spikenard and poured it over Jesus’s feet (John 12:1-8). People criticised her saying it was a waste of a year’s worth of wages. But Jesus defended her; he said she was preparing him for his burial.
If you haven’t smelt spikenard (aka nard) before, it’s a strange smell. It’s not sweet, it’s overwhelming. The plant grows in the Himalayas, hence the cost. Mary’s spikenard would have come from India, though mine was from Nepal.
I took it to church because people there had never smelt it. I had a couple of egg cups and poured five drops of the oil into each, and people passed them round. By the end, they didn’t doubt that Mary’s perfume “filled the whole house.”
When I got home, I wiped the eggcups dry, threw the wipes in the kitchen bin and thought nothing more of it.
Two days later I vacuumed upstairs. As I emptied the dust into the kitchen bin, I braced myself for the stench of the dust, dirt and grime.
But instead I smelt spikenard.
Then I did the stairs, and the hall and the living room and the kitchen. Several times, I emptied the dust into the bin — but each time all I smelt was spikenard. It was fragrant. It overcame the stench of everything I had thrown in.
And I couldn’t help but think of Jesus.
Christians believe through Jesus’s death, the world was and will be delivered from death. As well as suffering, and sickness and all the polluting effects of sin.
As I smelt the spikenard, it struck me how, even with all the world’s sin upon him, Jesus didn’t become unclean. Instead, he was most holy, through and through. And he made the world clean through what he did.
There was nothing, no transgression, too great for him.
A short look at the Bible
Today’s reading is an ancient text (read: strange text) but I’ll try and explain. It’s Leviticus 16:20-31.
As we’ve already seen, the Israelites had a strong sense of God’s holiness. Being his people meant living in his ways.
The Israelites knew they weren’t perfect as people. But the priesthood and its system of rituals was designed to keep them relating well with God. And when I say “relating well,” I don’t mean that in the sense of staving off God’s displeasure. It’s more like staying in communion or fellowship with him.
It’s like our movements with God ebb and flow; the rituals created a rhythm for the Israelites and moderated their movements.
The holiest day of the year was the day of atonement, Yom Kippur. That’s what the reading from Leviticus was about. It was a day to bring restoration between the whole community and God. Hence in English we call it ‘atonement’, as in, ‘at-one-ment.’
Why did this involve animal sacrifice and sending a poor innocent goat into the desert? I… I don’t know that there are comfortable answers to this. But it’s not because God hates goats.
What I do know is that, centuries after Moses, Jesus was crucified to death under Roman law. You’d think this would have ended Jesus’s following. But no. Instead, the New Testament says his death was a mysterious, long-foretold, once-for-all-time, redeeming event. And now every human (and animal) can be at-one with God.
In which case, I see only two possibilities.
Either the church is badly, badly wrong about Jesus. Or we’re onto something. And if we’re onto something, then God wanted us to understand it.
But how would anyone begin to explain that this good man’s death was good news? Of cosmic significance?
Yes, Christians are helped because we believe Jesus’s death was not the end. Instead he rose from the dead three days later.
But without Jesus’s Jewish heritage, I don’t think we had a chance of understanding his death. It’s through the ancient Israelite stories that we learn about promise, redemption, death-passing-over, deliverance, holiness, atonement, reconciliation, resurrection.
And the story of Jesus pulls all of that together.
The priest, the mediator, the Passover lamb; the shepherd, the king, the deliverer. In Jesus, all these words are fulfilled.
And in his risen life we discover new dimensions of words like ‘peace’ and ‘justice’ and ‘life.’
I tell you, I’m here for it.
Invitation to pray
We each pray in our own way; some of the best advice I had was ‘Pray as you can, not as you can’t.’ So I offer an invitation to pray – not an instruction.
When you stop and think about it, do you believe forgiveness can be real? In general? For you? For everyone? For anything? If it’s something you struggle with, ask God to help you understand it. Tell him you’re willing to be ‘at one’ with him. Ask him to show you if there’s anything standing in the way of that. And if there is, ask him to remove it. Don’t get hung up on how it came to be there, just ask him to deal with it.
If you have any questions or feedback about this series, please feel free to contact me. I do my best, but can make mistakes, and my theology is always under construction.
All posts in the series can be found via the tag Xmas2020.