There is a sensuous aspect to our liturgy that incorporates all of our senses—taste, sight, touch, hearing, even smell. To worship in the Episcopal Church is a full body experience—we stand, sit, and kneel even move around to offer one another the peace and come forward for the sacrament. We juggle books, shake hands, drink wine, at times we even smell incense all as intentional aspects of our liturgy in support of our praise and worship of God. Though some have complained that our manner is austere and we may have been accused of being the ‘frozen chosen” we are engaged and intentional even if somewhat confined to our pews.
A few years ago I was in New York and decided to go to Evening Prayer at Smokey Mary’s. Smokey Mary’s is the colloquial name for St. Mary the Virgin in Midtown Manhattan. It got its name because of the amount of incense the church uses. The Monday evening I went to prayers there, they were not using any incense and yet, the smoke hung heavily in the air and the scent of incense pervaded every inch of space in the cavernous building—it was as if the scent had seeped into the pews, the altar, the floors, the walls, everything and everywhere. You had the sense that if someone were to suck all the incense out of the building, the church itself would be unable to stand. It was sacred and it was holy and it was sometime before I noticed that the majority of the congregation in that place, at least that night, was homeless.
I don’t know why, but ever since my experience of worship at Smokey Mary’s I have associated incense with the poor. Prior to that experience I always associated incense with Tallulah Bankhead and her famous line, “Darling, I love your dress, but your purse is on fire.” Incense was an extravagant, yet beautiful, luxury of worship—unnecessary and maybe even a little pretentious. Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind a little extravagance every now and then that is why I am such a good Episcopalian. But I had always thought that incense might be a little too much, that it might suffer a little too much piety. It wasn’t until I sat in Smokey Mary’s chanting the prayers and inhaling the scent-saturated wood and cloth of vestments and altar hangings that I found myself drawn into what incense might mean in terms of the masses—the unwashed, the degraded and abased.
I’ve worked with homeless people as a social worker and as a priest. I have never been put off by their neediness or mental impairments, whether psychological or intellectual, nor by their potential for addiction and maybe that is because I know plenty of people who do have homes that suffer from the same conditions. There is no elegant way to say this, and it will demonstrate to you the louse of a person I really am, but what has always gotten to me was the smell—not so much that of unwashed bodies but the smells in which they lived in. Homeless shelters and gutters and back alleys do not smell good. They smell awful—full of the stench of urban living, the stench of garbage and decay.
Those smells make me anxious—it’s not simply a matter of distaste, they remind me that the circumstances of my own life are tenuous at best: there is a reason we associate smell with success and defeat. So, to walk into this place of liturgy and beauty and extravagance and to see the homeless resting in pews as prayers were said around them, with the fragrance of ancient resins infused in this space and drifting in the molecules of the very air we breathed together, gave me a new perspective on the sensuality of our common worship. More than any other liturgical experience I have had, I knew Jesus was in this place—not just his presence, but the fleshy embodiment of Christ in muscle and sinew, tissue and bone. Jesus was embodied by the homeless in their pews, by the clergy chanting their prayers, by the parishioners caught up in the sacred act of ritual and the divine fragrance permeated all of that.
Jesus has gone to his friends’ house. Lazarus is there—the one he has raised from the dead, the one who has known the stench of decay and is now trying to figure out how to live a resurrected life. Martha serves the meal, she offers the bread and the wine to all those who gather at the table. Mary makes the most extravagant gesture of all—she pours out her abundant, overflowing, fragrant love. She anoints her king not realizing that his crown will be made of thorns and his throne a cross. And then she wipes his feet with her hair; an intimate act; an act witnessed by all at the table; one in which not only does she kneel down in body, but bends the knee of her heart.
It is Judas who interrupts the hushed silence of the room: Judas who is made uncomfortable by this unconditional expression of humility and love. Judas, the cynical one, the one in search of a messiah who will defeat the Romans and restore Israel to the power and glory God has bequeathed her. Judas, the one who is trying to reconcile his expectations of war and aggression with the compassionate and caring leader he has chosen to follow. Without the parentheticals in this passage, we would not read Judas’ comments as malfeasance but instead might entertain them in a more thoughtful manner—why would one who cares so much for the poor, who has spent the past three years telling his disciples how important it is to feed the hungry and clothe the naked and tend the sick and visit the prisoner; why would he allow himself to be anointed with perfume that cost the equivalent of a year’s salary instead of selling that perfume and using the proceeds for the poor? It is extravagant and—regardless of Judas’ motivation for asking the question—it is an important question to ponder. And Jesus’ answer is somewhat surprising— “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”
Those words have led to significant confusion in the church as to when to use our resources to help the poor and when we might use those resources to the beautification and edification of our ecclesial properties and desires. The church has used these words of Jesus to both condemn complacency toward the needs of the poor as well as justify that same complacency—seemingly at her own will. She holds that tension and finds herself at times applauded and at other times under fire for her extravagances and uses of her resources. It is a tension we need to hold on too—the needs of the poor are ever in front of us as well they should be, but there is also a need for us to maintain that which is good, beautiful, and true. There is no perfect formula for making those decisions—instead we are called to wrestle with that tension as we maintain our mission and partner with God. But I’m not so sure Jesus is making the distinction we assume when he says, “You always have the poor, but you do not always have me.”
Jesus is the incarnate divine. He is God made man. To be incarnate is to take on meat—God is not simply made man, he is the divine who has taken on the flesh and bone, tissue and sinew of you and I and every person who has walked this earth. Jesus embodies us—rich and poor alike. But that evening when I sat in Smokey Mary’s breathing the heavenly scent and chanting ancient rite, I was drawn to the Jesus of the downtrodden, the tired and neglected, the impoverished and outcast. And in that moment, I realized that we will always have the poor with us and that in them we might find Jesus. That realization changed me, it made me realize that as Christians we cannot simply try to meet the needs of the poor but we must honor them and treasure them.
Stanley Hauerwas says, “The poor that we always have with us is Jesus. It is to the poor that all extravagance is to be given.” Smokey Mary’s is extravagant in her use of incense and celebration of liturgy but that extravagance is poured out onto the poor and all those who enter her doors. That liturgical offering echoes Mary’s act of anointing Jesus—it reminds us that we, as Christians, are called not simply to give to the poor, the marginalized, the outcast; but to honor them—to treat them with respect and dignity so that we may be made one body with him, that he may dwell in us, and we in him.
The fragrance of pure nard that lingers on Lazarus and anoints Jesus for his death is the scent of resurrection, of new life in Christ. It is the perfume that fills the house in its extravagant, excessive, abundant demonstration of love and compassion. We are invited into that extravagance when we live an abundant life—giving freely of our personhood, our gifts, and our resources; honoring and respecting all those whose lives touch ours. That is what it is to live as Mary, to love as Mary, to act with compassion.
As followers of Christ we cannot simply share in the work of his life, feeding and healing and caring, we must also share in the work of his death, honoring and respecting and anointing those around us who deserve to be treated as Mary treats Jesus. And that means everyone: family and friend, neighbor and immigrant, rich and poor deserve to be treated with respect, deserve to be treated as the anointed one. To anoint with the perfume of pure nard is to give of ourselves in making the world a little more fragrant.
Lent 5C: Isaiah 43:16-21; Psalm 126; Philippians 3:4b-14; John 12:1-8
Church of the Ascension – Episcopal, Montgomery, AL
Sunday, April 5, 2019
The Rev. Candice B. Frazer