Tag Archives: anointing

Mary of Bethany’s Story is a Feast for the Senses [OR No One Likes Funerals] John 12:1-8

**sermon art: Unction of Christ by Maria Stankova, 2-14

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on April 3, 2022

[sermon begins after Bible reading]

John 12:1-8  Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 2There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. 3Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. 4But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, 5“Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” 6(He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) 7Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. 8You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”

[sermon begins]

On a Sunday morning like most others, I was standing around in my home church’s lobby (mysteriously called the narthex).  Two people burst through the doors in tears. Our pastor happened onto the scene and guided them into his office. My imagination ran wild with whatever could have happened. Big emotions poured through those doors and out of their eyes. Later we found out that their beloved Australian shepherd had suddenly died. It was tough to make sense of their emotion. I wasn’t raised with dogs and our Australian family dog, Romi, was very much alive and kicking and wreaking havoc. It wasn’t until her diagnosis of cancer and her death a month later that the heartbreak made sense to us. Barb and Barney, our neighbors who we exchange dog-sitting with, brought over a small rose plant with fiery orange roses that matched Romi’s fierce and sweet soul. I’ve long since planted it outside and every year Romi’s rose blooms again around her death date in July.

Barb, Barney, and other sweet people taught me a lot about how to respond when other people’s pets die. We had Romi cremated. It took a few months to figure out where to spread her ashes and we settled on the open space that she was notorious for adventuring through whenever she foiled our efforts to keep her in the yard. It was just Rob, me, and the kids. Each of us said something about Romi. One of us mentioned being grateful for her love of our family. And then I prayed. Our son instinctively found a large stone nearby, lugged it over, and plonked it on the spot. Then we walked back to the house.

Funny thing about Romi’s death was how much it heightened other personal and professional losses in my life. As a 19-year-old brand new Registered Nurse, my first dear young patient died. Cherisse was 8 years old. She started sleeping most of the time, and with closed eyes she quietly whispered that I didn’t smell good, her mom clarifying right away that it was because I didn’t smell like perfume. Then 6-year-old Aaron. We called each other “Toots” and laughed a lot. My Dad died when I was 20 and my stepdad Pops died when I was 32. I’d been to many, many, many funerals before I started leading funerals as a pastor.

Remembering and grieving, gratitude and love, guilt and anger, and many other emotions both small and large tangle together when someone dies. Today’s gospel story from John poignantly paints these jumbled emotions. Jesus was visiting Lazarus, Mary, and Martha in Bethany six days before the Passover. Mary of Bethany was the one who had already cried once at Jesus’ feet, after Lazarus had died but before Jesus raised him from the dead.[1] Lazarus’ wild death-to-life story and the associated plot to kill Jesus are in the chapter just before our reading today.

In today’s story, Jesus has returned to Bethany to be with his friends again. A special dinner was held in his honor. During dinner, Mary breaks open the nard – a fragrant, greasy ointment that my young patient Cherisse would have loved because it “smells good.” Nard, a pricey import from the Indian Himalayas, was used medicinally, and it was also used to prepare bodies for burial because of its strong fragrance. In Old Testament times, nard was burned as an incense offering to God by the Hebrew people.[2] It was a household treasure.

As Judas points out, it was worth a fortune. Mary opened the nard, “anointed Jesus’ feet and wiped them with her hair.” Typical of John’s gospel, there are layers to what is happening in the story. It’s possible that Lazarus still smelled like nard from his burial because its scent lingers and lingers and lingers in the skin thanks to the oils in the ointment. Everyone in the home was reminded of recent events by the nard’s unique fragrance swirling with the recent emotions of grief, gratitude, joy, guilt, anger, and God knows what else. As if the expense and the smell weren’t enough, Mary’s hair draped over Jesus’ feet were another shock to the senses. The sight of her hair, the smell of the nard, the memory of death, the presence of life, and a death yet to come, made a many layered moment. The fragrance alone would be in her hair for weeks. To top it all off, Jesus was likely crucified and buried with the fragrance of nard still radiating from his feet through the skin and wounds inflicted there. Mary was simultaneously remembering Lazarus’ funeral and preparing for Jesus’ funeral with an excessive, fragrant celebration of life.

I don’t know anyone who says that they like funerals (if I had a dollar for every time someone’s told me that they don’t like funerals…). Of course, no one like funerals. Someone has died and that’s awful. Funerals are reminders of other losses in our lives and our own mortality. That is difficult and disruptive. But their meaningful layers create a space to celebrate life. We celebrate the life of the person who died, and, by extension, we celebrate the gift of life. Funerals are a sacred pause even if we don’t agree with whatever theology (or lack thereof) is framing them.

We attend some funerals because they’re not optional. A close friend or family member dies, and we are supposed to be there. I invite you to think about attending funerals that seem optional. When your co-worker’s mom dies, go. When your neighbor’s daughter dies, go. When the person you sit next to in the pew but you don’t know very well dies, go. There may be a lot of reasons why it’s not possible to go to a particular funeral. But if it’s possible, go.

The algorithm you create in your mind about how well you knew the person who died doesn’t matter. I’ve never heard a deceased person’s family wonder why someone else was at a funeral. I’ve only ever heard extreme gratitude and sometimes surprise from the family for everyone who’s taken the time to be there. Funerals can feel awkward and quirky. Eulogies can go wildly awry. Sermons can be weird. And, at the same time, funerals can offer grace moments even when our own grief is dusted off to reveal our memories. We simply honor life by showing up when death happens.

That’s kind of a good summary of Holy Week leading into Easter as well. We honor life by showing up after death happens. As did Mary of Bethany in this strange story about a fragrant dinner party. During Lent and especially Holy Week, we remember the baptismal promise of daily dying and rising with Christ – drowning our sin in the depths of forgiveness and grace unbounded. Like the fragrance of the nard, our baptisms are a reminder of death AND life. Our death and life. Jesus’ death and life. All the promises, pain and joy that a life contains.

Next Sunday, a week from today, Holy Week begins with Palm and Passion Sunday – waving palm branches in celebration of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem and hearing the story of his death in Luke’s gospel; then comes Jesus’ commandment to love each other along with Holy Communion on Maundy Thursday; and remembrance of his self-sacrificing crucifixion on Good Friday. We attend Jesus’ funeral to celebrate and remember the life-giving cross, but ultimately, we attend the funeral in anticipation of Easter’s empty tomb. Because the empty tomb is God’s promise to us that, in the face of death, love and life are the last word.


[1] John 11:32

[2] “What is pure nard in the Bible?” https://religionandcivilsociety.com/catholics/what-is-pure-nard-in-the-bible.html

A Baptism in the P.I.C.U – John 12:1-8

Pastor Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on March 13, 2016

[sermon begins after the Bible story]

John 12:1-8 Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 2 There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. 3 Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. 4 But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, 5 “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” 6 (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) 7 Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. 8 You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”

[sermon begins]

There are Bible moments so absurd and disruptive that they are difficult to imagine.  Mary’s anointing of Jesus is one of them.  Oil and hair and fragrance are dripping, cascading, and emanating.  There is no ignoring this moment if you’re around that dinner table.

Lazarus is there, having just recently been raised from the dead by Jesus.  His story is told in the chapter just before the reading today.[1]  We can imagine this dinner as a celebration.  Lazarus is back and people are ready to party.  His sister Martha is serving. Judas is there enjoying the circle of friendship as a disciple of Jesus.  Then there’s Lazarus’ other sister, Mary of Bethany. Her exuberance knows no bounds. Her adoration of Jesus must be expressed.  And so it goes, with dripping oil, cascading hair, and emanating fragrance.  A feast of the senses at a table set for dinner.

How are we to understand this adoration she pours on Jesus?  The purity and price of the nard are emphasized.  A rare, imported Himalayan treasure.  A year’s wages.  The nard’s purity and price lead me to wonder about the purity of Mary’s adoration and the cost to herself as she disrupts the dinner party.

One cost is Judas’ poor opinion.  Judas feels free to give his opinion. He demeans her adoration with pious words.  He attempts to put her into her place and uses the poor to do so.  His argument is a vulgar appropriation of the poor – using them as a means to an end.  Jesus is having none of it and slams Judas’ argument.  There are plenty of other Jesus stories that assure us of his determination to eradicate poverty and not leave the poor to their subsistence or our hands clean of their plight.  Regardless of Jesus’ intervention, what does Judas’ poor opinion matter?  He can put it into pious language all he wants.  Mary’s joy will not be stolen by him or anyone else.  Judas’ disapproval is but a pittance.

A few years ago, a fellow seminarian said about Mary’s anointing of Jesus that if he had long hair this is what he would do for someone similarly important to him.  His comment opens the story slightly differently as the imagination plays across gender and time between Mary of Bethany and our moment in time today.  What does adoration look like on a personal level this century?  Set celebrity culture aside for a moment.  Groupies are a different conversation. Mary is in her home. Jesus is known to Mary and her family personally over the course of time.  Her adoration of Jesus is pure and costly.  And she is breaking gender barriers all over the place.  She is a woman of her time whose hair should be tucked away.  She should not be touching a man in the company of others.  In fact, it is life-threatening for her to do so. He, a man, would ordinarily rebuke her like Judas does.  Yet, there they are, oil dripping, hair cascading, and fragrance emanating.

There is something else happening in parallel to Mary’s adoration.  After raising Lazarus from the dead, Jesus is now a target for death himself. The story of Lazarus raised from the dead is followed by the plot developing to arrest Jesus and kill him. [2] And then we get this dinner party. Mary of Bethany calls Jesus “Lord” in previous texts and now anoints him.  Jesus talks openly about his death when he says to Judas, “Leave her alone…She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial.”[3]  The implication is that she is anointing him for his death.

This past week I received a phone call from a man who asked me to come baptize his one month old son who was on life support.  They were at Children’s Hospital having been flown in by Flight for Life.  He was not expected to live. We arranged for me to come out that evening.  Via text, the father rescheduled our time for the following morning since the baby’s mother was arriving in the middle of the night from out-of-state.  When I arrived, they were both in the room along with the baby’s grandparents.

We talked briefly.  I assured them that, despite whatever we thought we were doing, this moment is first and foremost about God’s promise to be present for their baby even in this most painful time.  Then, with water from a clay bowl, this little one was baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  His head dried with the linen baptismal napkin from the church.  I told him he was sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever while making the sign of the cross on his forehead with oil-lotion scented with frankincense and myrrh.

As the fragrant cross was made on his forehead, Mary’s anointing popped into my mind along with these words from Thanksgiving for Baptism in the funeral liturgy which begins, “When we were baptized into Christ Jesus, we were baptized into his death.”[4]  These words took on new meaning for me in the P.I.C.U. this week.

After this little one was baptized, I handed the parents the un-lit baptismal candle and told them that his light was shining even in his short life and that God is with him.  The family and I shared the bread and wine of communion and then the grandfather asked if I would give this little one “last rites.”  I briefly explained that I would pray what we call the “Commendation of the Dying.” And so we did.  He died within the next few days.

The anointing of this little one in baptism echoes with Mary’s anointing of Jesus before he entered Jerusalem for the last time.  It also echoes the prayer and anointing for healing that you can choose to receive during this worship service.  The Health Minister will anoint your hands with olive oil and say this prayer for you: “May our Lord Jesus Christ uphold you and fill you with his grace, that you may know the healing power of his love…Amen.”

Lent invites reflection on our own baptism.  We reflect on the things that are being “put to death” in us so that something else, something we cannot imagine on our own, may come to life in us by the power of the Holy Spirit through each of our baptisms.  This is part of the healing for which we pray.

Jesus is about life and living.  Lazarus discovered it first-hand. Mary of Bethany adores and anoints Jesus.  She adores and anoints him for the life he brings even as she prepares him for the death he will face because there are those who find his life threatening.  But, even in Lent, we are an Easter people – celebrating that Jesus brings life even through the darkest times by way of his death on a cross.  We remember this promise at funerals with these words, “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live a new life.”[5]  This new life is for today.  For you.  Our baptism is God’s daily promise by way of a cross and a savior in whom “we live and move and have our being.”[6]   All glory be to God for this indescribable gift![7]


[1] John 11:1-44 – These verses tell the story of Lazarus’ illness, death, and being raised from the dead by Jesus.

[2] John 11:45-57 – These verses tell the story of the plot to arrest Jesus and put him to death for bringing Lazarus to life.

[3] John 12:7

[4] Evangelical Lutheran Worship. Funeral. (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2006), 280.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Acts 28:17

[7] 2 Corinthians 9:15