Text: Mark 14:1-9 (Jesus is anointed for burial)
The journey of Lent is called “the narrow path” because Jesus says “the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life” (Matthew 7:13). But is there one path or many?
In today’s reading, Jesus describes an act of oil being poured on his head as anointing for burial. Today, I reflect on what this phrase might mean and how it relates to the narrow path of Lent.
The word “anointing” is used in different contexts. Powerful leaders are sometimes accused of trying to anoint a successor. Monarchs are anointed with oil at their coronations. In the Catholic tradition, terminally ill people are anointed in a ritual called The Last Rites.
When an unnamed woman pours oil on Jesus’ head, his friends protest at the extravagance. But Jesus defends her. She has done him a kindness, he says.
Peter had identified Jesus as the Anointed One when they began their journey to Jerusalem. He assumed that Jesus would be revealed to the nation as the Christ at a coronation ceremony in the Temple. In a ritual from the time of King David, the High Priest would anoint Jesus with oil and put a crown on his head.
This is still the case with monarchs in Europe whose coronation ceremonies are based on those in the Hebrew Bible. Since 1727, the coronation of every British monarch has been accompanied by the singing of the anthem “Zadok the Priest” written by Handel. Zadok was the High Priest who anointed King Solomon in a ceremony in Jerusalem 3,000 years ago (1 Kings:38-40).
But Jesus is not like David, Solomon, or the monarchs of Europe. He is a king who wears a crown of thorns and who reigns in the hearts of those who follow a path of death and resurrection.
When Kim and I were on vacation in February, we participated in a ritual that included a moment that to me felt like anointment for burial. The resort where we stayed in southern Mexico had a spa overlooking the Pacific Ocean. To our delight and surprise, the spa not only offered massage, hydrotherapy, and pedicures. It also had a domed sweat lodge called a “Temazcal.” One afternoon, we entered this low-slung stone structure and participated in a 90-minute sweat.
I appreciated the experience, although it was far from easy. In the darkness of the lodge, ten of us sat around a central pit in which the leader placed heated stones and on which she poured scented water. While she offered prayers to the four directions, we confronted our fears and desires as the temperature and humidity soared to uncomfortable levels.
Before we crawled into the Temazcal, the elder who led the ritual smudged us with smoke from sacred herbs. She told us that the lodge represented both tomb and womb and that the sweat was designed to symbolize death and rebirth. Because of her words, I accepted the smudge as a kind of anointing for burial.
When I read more about Temazcal this week, I was not surprised to learn that the Spanish colonizers who conquered Mexico 500 years ago did not approve of them. Before the conquest, Temazcal were found in most cities and villages in Mexico. But the Spaniards destroyed them. Happily, in recent years, many have been rebuilt, and these sweat lodges have spread even to all-inclusive tourist resorts.
I don’t know how “authentic” our experience was, but it reminded me of the little I know about First Nations’ spiritual practices here in Canada.
This was the first sweat I had experienced, but not my first smudge. I first encountered smudging ten years ago in a course on First Nations’ spirituality. One day after a visit to a former Indian Residential School in Brantford, an elder in our circle smudged us with tobacco and sage to help us deal with the disturbing things we had encountered that day.
The Christian church can be divided along different lines. One divide is between those who say that the church has a monopoly on salvation and those who say there are many paths to new life.
I stand with the latter. While I love the rituals of the church, I also appreciate other traditions. I was born into the church, and I am sure that following the path of Jesus will fill my heart all the days of my life. But I also glimpse that the truths revealed by the death and resurrection of Jesus are also revealed in many other traditions of the past and present.
Another division in the church is between those who focus on Jesus as the sole actor in salvation and those who say that we all participate. Does Jesus do all the work for us? Or do all who love God and neighbour undergo our own death and resurrection?
I stand with the latter. Jesus calls us to take up our cross and follow him, which for me indicates that the narrow path is one we all walk.
Death and resurrection are not one-time events. They are a reality repeated many times in the life of all people and institutions; and rituals like sweat lodges can help us relate to this reality.
Baptism provides another example. When we baptize people here, as we did with Hazel Grace two weeks ago, we hear the following passage from Romans: “all of us who are baptised into Jesus Christ have, by that very action, shared in his death. We are buried with him in baptism so that we too may rise to new life just as Jesus was raised from the dead by God’s power. Having shared his death, let us now rise and live new lives with him” (Romans 6).
But baptism is only a ritual. The reality of death and resurrection is encountered in the vicissitudes of life in which we experience disillusionment and then rise to a life closer to Love. I appreciate baptism because it reminds us of the difficulties and joys of life’s journey and of how a loving community and God’s Grace can help us.
The narrow path that Jesus takes from Galilee to Jerusalem takes the form of a hero’s journey. When we symbolically join this path each Lent, we remind ourselves that each of us is on a hero’s journey. Jesus shows us the way, but we also walk it.
I am grateful that the narrow path of Christ helps in times of death and rebirth. I am also happy to realize that people and cultures outside of the church have found paths that follow this universal pattern. And how could it be otherwise?
The sweat that Kim and I experienced in Mexico was as powerful as any ritual I have encountered in church. This does not mean I will abandon the church for Indigenous spirituality. But neither should the church spurn such traditions. Everyone is enriched, I believe, by living in a diverse society that offers multiple ways to symbolize the truths of resurrection.
And for this awareness I say, “Thanks be to God.”