Scripture: John 12:1-8
St. Patrick’s day is one of the only saint days I ever like to celebrate. I do this because I find the life of Patrick fascinating even though most of what we know about him is seeped with legend. I like this day because it celebrates what one life devoted to God can really do. There is something remarkable about one man going into a nation that was opposed to his faith, starting a ministry, devoting his entire life to that ministry, and to see nearly an entire nation convert. What a dramatic story. It is a story that has attracted me to the Celtic Christian traditions in many ways. I have read about their spirituality and how they approached evangelism, and have found that it is actually very remarkable. They converted most people through encouragement. They started where they were at that moment and encouraged them to take a step closer to God.
In most legends of Patrick we hear about how he would teach the concept of the Triune God through the illustration of the shamrock. It is a great illustration in many ways. The first is that the Celtic people did not worship in buildings like we do but instead they would worship out in nature. The resurgence of the ancient Celtic religions is in a large part to this worship in and of nature. Patrick did not condemn nature because nature is part of creation, he would instead use what they knew already to teach them a deeper truth.
So often times we try to convince people of the truth, argue and debate over what is right, but we put so much effort in knowing all the answers to the potential questions that we fail to listen to the question. The early Celtic Church would go into areas and build monasteries. These monasteries would then become centers of villages that would educate people and eventually would become centers for trade. They would then plant another monastery and the cycle would continue until there were monasteries all around Ireland. This was early in the church and Ireland was nearly independent of the influences of the rest of the Catholic Church. The way that they did things was different; the leader of the church was not a bishop but the monastery’s abbot. This is important because the leader of the church was not appointed but was groomed to lead that community. Sometimes it was a tribal leader or a family, at other times the abbot was a person that rose to their position out of great spiritual devotion. They would lead the community in faith and action.
The Celtic form of Evangelism was Pray, Worship, and Ministry. They set up the house of prayer, they built the center for worship, and they lived among the people teaching and encouraging a faithful life. It is truly a beautiful history. For nearly a thousand years this community based approach flourished and even spread into other areas of Europe. They had a unique manner of expressing their faith in God, and it saved not only Ireland but also the Catholic Church. The Irish were an artistic people; they expressed this in poetry, song, and ink.
Today we celebrate that rich heritage of Ireland, but that rich heritage goes well beyond the emerald Isle. In many ways it goes right back to this meal at Bethany in the house of Lazarus, Martha, and Mary. This house is mentioned often in the gospels as if it became a central hub of the ministry of Jesus. There are really two centers, Capernaum to the North and Bethany in the south. Jesus spent so much time in this place; he was so fond of this family that one of the greatest miracles blessed them. This house of Lazarus, Martha, and Mary was one of the first churches of the Way; it was a place of worship and renewal. It was the sanctuary of Sabbath retreat for the traveling ministers of Christ. They meet there, they share a meal, and they praise God.
Why is this house so important? It is widely believed that this family was the major supporters of the ministry of Jesus and the apostles. Jesus was literally without a home. After his baptism in the Jordon his first disciple chased him down and wanted to follow him. Jesus told them that foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests but the son of man has nowhere to lay his head. So it was the houses of people like this family that became the home base for the ministry. But it goes deeper than this, it is often said that Mary was the woman caught in adultery that Jesus saved from execution, and that she was also delivered from bondage of seven demons. Lazarus was so dear to Jesus that he was raised from the dead after being buried in the family tomb. This family, if legends are true, was blessed by God through Jesus so it is no wonder that they would become some of the greatest supporters of the ministry.
We see in this story a great exchange. Mary anoints Jesus and washes his feet with her hair. It is a beautiful and intimate ritual. She is kneeling before her Lord the one that saved her life, and she gives him all that she has. She lathers the feet of Jesus with one pound of costly perfume. Let us consider this for just a moment. Nard is not easily found in Israel. It comes from the roots of a plant that is native in Nepal, China, and India. This is something that has been transported from the far eastern regions of the Persian Empire. This is a perfume that is costly; it was used in the Song of Songs by the woman to anoint her lover and king. This perfume is not something a common person would obtain, and it is not something that would be used in vain. In this scene Mary is expressing her total commitment and service to Jesus, she is anointing him as her king. She is expressing devotion and love for this man who saved her and gives her a purpose in life. She uses a pound of nard. This is a pound of thick oil being worked into the skin of Jesus’ feet and into her hair; the air is filled with the fragrant aroma. Which leads us to yet another use of nard. This same oil was used in the making of incense for the temple. It is still used by churches throughout the world to represent the sweet smell of pray and praise being lifted up into heaven as it is burned and the smoke fills the air. Mary and all present are in a state of worship.
Jesus sits and lets Mary do this to him. Mary’s brother is sitting there at the table with him. This is something that should be done in the marriage chamber but it is something more. There is a love and devotion that runs deeper than marriage; this is intimacy of God and man. But there is one that objects to this worship, Judas. The first thing out of his mouth is “Why was this perfume not sold for 300 denarii and the money given to the poor?” In the very act of worship the idolatry rears it’s head. Jesus says, “Leave her alone.”
Leave her alone. There is a place for beauty, and a place for ministry. There is a time for rest and a time to work. There is a time and place for everything under heaven. I say that this story links to the story of Ireland because the story of Ireland is not one of beauty and peace but is often plagued with war. Ireland was devoted to God and as a result they created some of the most priceless treasures of faithful art. In their monasteries they created or illuminated gospels to distribute throughout Christendom. They carried these treasures to each new monastery they established throughout all of Europe. The demand for the books copied by their monks were great and Ireland in their love for God was flooding the Holy Roman Empire with the Nard of the Word, and those in power became jealous. They became jealous of the power that the Irish monks had with the people because they lived with and encourage the people. They became jealous that these monks and priest of the Irish rite were not conforming to their will and a crusade was waged against them.
The great story of a nation coming to Christ through Patrick became a story of tragedy by jealous pride and betrayal. The greatest supporters of the church in Europe were betrayed by the very people they honored and represented. All because of money and power. Judas betrayed Christ for money, Judas was not capable to join the others in the worship of Christ as Mary anointed the feet of Jesus because he was not worshiping God but he was consumed by the idolatry of the denarii. A year’s wages was dumped on Jesus’ feet, and Judas could not fathom the waste because he had plans for that money. But money is just a tool. It is ultimately worthless. Yet this one tool often times become the purpose of many. Judas had plans for the money; he even had plans for this pound of perfume. He had good plans actually, plans for ministry. Give it to the poor, but why?
Why are we doing what we do? Why do we give what we give? Mary bought the perfume to honor Jesus so that she could keep it for the day of his burial. Yet Jesus was not dead, she instead used it to honor him while he still lived. And then Jesus says something that is very strange, “you always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”
You always have the poor. This is a crazy cryptic phrase. It can be interpreted many different ways. Some people interpret it as meaning that there will always be people oppressing them. Some interpret it, as meaning there will always be people in need. If we combine the two it means that there will always be a need for ministry…[B]ut you do not always have me. We can look out at the people around us struggling to make ends meet, struggling to keep their businesses going, struggling to just feed their kids and keep a roof over their heads. We can become so consumed by the needs, that we can become focused on what we do not have instead of what we have. This is bondage, bondage to the cult of money. There is never enough when you are focused on what you do not have. There is always someone with more or someone with something better. Judas was caught in that bondage just as many of us are, bound by what we don’t have instead of what we do. We have enough to honor God.
Patrick started with what people had, a shamrock. And from that shamrock an entire nation turned to God. From that shamrock, Ireland turned to the light and carried that light into the world. He entered Ireland with nothing and left Ireland rich in faith. Mary worshiped Christ with what she had, she freely gave it all she gave in worship without knowing what would happen in the future, and she was honored.
I close today with a challenge as we move ever closer to the week of the year we remember the sacrifice of Jesus for each of us. I often encourage us to imagine ourselves in the scripture to identify with a character in the story. Today I ask whom do you identify with? Are you Mary? Pouring out your love and devotion to the king who lifted you out of a life of bondage and sin? Or are you trapped in bondage? Are you trapped by your past, by your circumstances, or by some sort of idolatry? As we enter into this time of open worship and holy expectancy, as we examine our lives or break open the jars of perfume in our hearts let us remember that Jesus came not to condemn the world but to love the world and to bring each of us to him through his life, his death, and his resurrection.
Saint Patrick’s “Breastplate” Prayer
I bind unto myself today The strong Name of the Trinity, By invocation of the same, The Three in One and One in Three.
I bind this day to me forever. By power of faith, Christ’s incarnation; His baptism in the Jordan River; His death on Cross for my salvation; His bursting from the spicèd tomb; His riding up the heavenly way; His coming at the day of doom; I bind unto myself today.
I bind unto myself the power Of the great love of the cherubim; The sweet ‘well done’ in judgment hour, The service of the seraphim, Confessors’ faith, Apostles’ word, The Patriarchs’ prayers, the Prophets’ scrolls, All good deeds done unto the Lord, And purity of virgin souls.
I bind unto myself today The virtues of the starlit heaven, The glorious sun’s life-giving ray, The whiteness of the moon at even, The flashing of the lightning free, The whirling wind’s tempestuous shocks, The stable earth, the deep salt sea, Around the old eternal rocks.
I bind unto myself today The power of God to hold and lead, His eye to watch, His might to stay, His ear to hearken to my need. The wisdom of my God to teach, His hand to guide, His shield to ward, The word of God to give me speech, His heavenly host to be my guard.
Against the demon snares of sin, The vice that gives temptation force, The natural lusts that war within, The hostile men that mar my course; Or few or many, far or nigh, In every place and in all hours, Against their fierce hostility, I bind to me these holy powers.
Against all Satan’s spells and wiles, Against false words of heresy, Against the knowledge that defiles, Against the heart’s idolatry, Against the wizard’s evil craft, Against the death wound and the burning, The choking wave and the poisoned shaft, Protect me, Christ, till Thy returning.
Christ be with me, Christ within me, Christ behind me, Christ before me, Christ beside me, Christ to win me, Christ to comfort and restore me. Christ beneath me, Christ above me, Christ in quiet, Christ in danger, Christ in hearts of all that love me, Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.
I bind unto myself the Name, The strong Name of the Trinity; By invocation of the same. The Three in One, and One in Three, Of Whom all nature hath creation, Eternal Father, Spirit, Word: Praise to the Lord of my salvation, Salvation is of Christ the Lord.