+ If you know me for any period of time, you know this fact about me. At some point I am going to ask you one particular question: What are your funeral arrangements?
I think sometimes that I should’ve been a funeral director. I mean, let’s face it: I do a lot of funerals. A lot. And I often have to do funerals for people who have never made any plans for their funerals.
So, when I ask, don’t think it’s morbid or weird (though it is kind of morbid and weird). I ask because it’s an important question to ask. And it’s important to think about. Because, let me tell you, if you don’t make them, those left behind will. And sometimes, they are not in the best frame of mind to plan a service.
I always encourage people—especially parishioners: Make those plans in advance. And not just plans for the funeral service. But plans for the disposition of your remains.
And just so you think I’m not some hypocrite up here preaching (I hope you never think I’m a hypocrite up here preaching), yes, I have my own arrangements made. They’re in my in my will, and I express my wishes quite often to people. It’s no secret that for me personally I prefer cremation with burial. I am of the frame of mind that believes that the body, whether buried or cremated, should be treated with a certain level of respect and care and should be properly buried or disposed of in some way. These bodies, these vessels we have been given, are important and are wonderful gifts to us from God, and we should treat them with some level of respect.
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. She is, in a sense, anointing him 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. She sees—and maybe doesn’t fully comprehend, though she certainly intuitively guesses—that Jesus is different, that God is working through Jesus in some very wonderful and unique way. And she sees that God is working through the very flesh and blood of Jesus.
For us, as Christians we do know that issues of the flesh are important. And not in some self-deprecating way, either. You will not hear me preaching much about the “sins of the flesh.” (Don’t think I’m encouraging them either, though) For us, flesh is important in a good way in our understanding of our relationship with God.
What we celebrate here every Sunday and Wednesday at the Eucharist is reminder to us how important issues like physical matter are. We worship not only in spirit and in spiritual things. We worship in physical things as well.
Bread and wine.
Candles and bells.
And, at Wednesday mass, incense.
These things remind us that we have senses, given to us by God. And these senses can be used in our full worship of that God. And that God that we worship is concerned with our matter as well. God accepts our worship with all our senses. God actually gets down in the muck of the matter of our lives.
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 Christ and the saints. There was a time in the church when people felt there should be no images like this 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."
I love that quote!
“I will not cease from honoring that matter which works for my salvation.”
Why so many Christians view matter or the flesh as such a horrible, sinful thing baffles me. And as we all know, 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 terrible, 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, which was condemned by the early 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 with 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 God makes it sacred.
And if we have trouble remembering that our flesh is sacred, that God cares about us not just spiritually but physically, we have no further place to look than what we do here at this altar, in the Eucharist. Here, God truly does feed our flesh, as well as our spirits. And, we can even go so far as to say that by feeding our flesh, God becomes one with us physically as well as spiritually. That is what Holy Communion is all about.
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 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. Next Sunday, we will also get palms. Now, every year you hear me say: save those palms. First of all, they are blessed palms. We will bless them at the beginning of the Mass. I say fold them, display them, let them dry out. Because next winter, right before Ash Wednesday, I will ask you to bring them back to church. Those green and beautiful palms that we wave next Sunday, will be burned and made into the ashes we use on Ash Wednesday, when we are reminded that we are dust, and to dust we shall return.
We are kind of like those palms. One day, we too will be ashes. But our ashes will still be important.
There is a strange and wonderful circle happening in all of this. We see it all comes around. And that God does really work through all of this in our lives as Christians. Yes, even in the ashes, and matter of our lives.
Holy Week is a time for us to be thinking about these last things—yes, our spiritual last things, but also our physical last things as well. As we make our way through Holy Week, we will see Jesus as he endures physically and spiritually, from 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 truly are spiritual beings enjoying a physical experience. We are spiritual beings enjoying an incredible and wonderful pilgrimage through matter. So, enjoy it. Exult in it. Truly partake in this material experience. Let us rejoice in this material experience God has allowed us. 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.