+ I am in the habit of often asking people a very intimate question. No, it’s not THAT kind of intimate question. But it is a weird, intimate question. I am in the habit of asking people about what their funeral plans are. Many of you have heard me ask you that question. Yes, I know. It’s morbid. But, as I’ve learned over the years, you can a lot from a person by the plans they’ve made for themselves following their death. And as a priest, I always encourage people to think about this issue, discuss it with one’s loved ones, write it down and make definite plans. And of course, I always encourage to make sure those instructions are on file here at the church.
When my father died, he had everything planned to the detail. The funeral service, the hymns, the gravestone was set up and inscribed at the cemetery. He had even purchased the urn in which his ashes were buried.
Now, my dad died very suddenly, and was certainly not ill before he died. But he was just one of those people who was always prepared. He was like the quintessential Boy Scout. And I can tell you, because he was, it made my job much easier when the time came for making those final arrangements for him.
Certainly, I have my own arrangements already made. They’re in my in my will, and I express my wishes quite often to people. It’s not secret that for me personally I prefer cremation with burial. I am of the frame of mind that believes that the body, whether just buried or cremated, should be treated with a certain level of respect and care and should be properly buried or interred in some way.
In today’s Gospel, we find Mary doing something that sort of encompasses this view of the sacredness of the body. We find her coming before Jesus and doing a very unusual thing: she anoints his feet. And Jesus, even more strangely, reprimands Judas by saying that Mary is doing nothing more than anointing his body for burial.
As we near Holy Week—that final week of Jesus’ life before the cross—our thoughts are now turning more and more to these “last things.” Yes, it’s all starting to sound a little morbid. And no doubt, poor Judas was also thinking Jesus was getting weirdly morbid himself. But, Jesus is reminding us, yet again, that even the simplest acts of devotion have deeper meaning and are meant to put us in mind of what is about to ultimately happen.
Mary sees in Jesus something even his disciples don’t—yet. She sees—and maybe doesn’t fully comprehend, though she certainly intuitively guesses—that Jesus, in his flesh and blood, is different. There is something holy and complete about him. She might not go so far as to say that he is God in the flesh, good Jew that she is, but certainly she is leaning in that direction.
For us, as Christians who do believe that Jesus is God in the flesh, we know that issues of the flesh are important. Because of the incarnation, because, in Jesus’ flesh and blood, we have come to know God, we know that our flesh is also special. If God would deign to come among us and take on flesh like our flesh, then our flesh must not be such an inherently horrible thing.
One of my all-time favorite quotes is from one of the early Church Father, John of Damascus. John wrote a truly remarkable thing while defending the veneration of icons—or holy images of Jesus and the saints. There was a time in the church when people felt there should be no images of Jesus because it violated the commandment to make no graven images. John wrote in defense of icons:
“I do not worship matter, I worship the God of matter, who became matter for my sake and deigned to inhabit matter, who worked out my salvation through matter. I will not cease from honoring that matter which works for my salvation. I venerate it, though not as God."
Why so many Christians view matter or the flesh as such a horrible, sinful thing baffles me. And there are Christians who believe that. There are Christians who believe that these bodies of ours are sinful and should be treated as wild, uncontrollable things that must be mastered and disciplined and ultimately defeated.
Why we as Christians get so caught up with this awful ridiculous view that the flesh is this awful, sin-filled thing we carry around is frustrating for me. In fact, the belief that the flesh is bad and the spirit all-good is a very early church heresy, that was condemned by the Christian Church.
We have all known Christians who do think that flesh is a horrible, sinful thing—who think all we should do is concentrate only and the spiritual. For those of us in the know—even for those of who have suffered from physical illness and suffering ourselves in this flesh—we know that the flesh and the spirit truly are connected. We cannot separate the two while we are still alive and walking on the earth.
Still, I do always love the quote from one of my personal heroes, the Jesuit priest and paleontologist, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, from his incredible book The Phenomenon of Man:
“We are not human beings having a spiritual experience; we are spiritual beings having a human experience.”
I think we could just as easily say that we are spiritual beings having a material experience. I, of course, don’t see that as a downplaying our flesh. Rather, I see it as truly the spirit making the material holy. Our flesh is sacred because Jesus makes it sacred. He made it sacred by becoming flesh, by showing us in his incarnation—in his in-flesh-ment, shall we say—that these are bodies are good.
And if we have trouble remembering that our flesh is sacred, that God in Jesus cares about us not just spiritually but physically, we have no further place to look that what we do here at this altar, in the Eucharist. Here, we find Jesus, in the same flesh and blood that Mary herself anoints in today’s Gospel reading. Here, he comes among us and feeds our flesh, as well as our spirits. And, we can even go so far as to say that by feeding our flesh, he becomes one with us physically as well as spiritually.
This is part of the reason why I think that even following our death we should honor what remains of this flesh because it is sacred. We shouldn’t just toss it away or frivolously dole it out or in any other way disrespect it. We should be respectful to our ashes and those of our loved ones, for truly God has worked through the flesh of all the people we have known in our lives and, by doing so, has made them each uniquely holy and special.
Next week, on Palm Sunday, we will begin our liturgy with joy and end it on a solemn note as we head into Holy Week. Holy Week is a time for us to be thinking about these last things—yes, our spiritual last things, but also our physical. As we make our way through Holy Week, we will see Jesus as he endures physically and spiritually, from the a spirit so wracked with pain that he sweats blood, to the terror and torment of being tortured, whipped and nailed to a cross. As we journey through these last days of Lent, let us do so pondering how God has worked through our flesh and the flesh of our loved ones.
Yes, we are spiritual beings enjoying a physical experience. We are spiritual beings enjoying a pilgrimage through matter. Let us rejoice in these material experience.
Let us be grateful for all the joys we have received through this matter in which we dwell and experience each other. And let this joy be the anointment for our flesh as we ponder our own end and the wonderful new beginning that starts with that end.