Shortly after Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Louisiana and Mississippi coast, I was deployed to the area with a church disaster relief organization. I had only been ordained for about a year, and this was my first deployment. I packed all of the things I thought I would need for a couple of weeks in a disaster zone and boarded a plane south.
The details were sketchy at best. I was not sure where I would stay, and I think I got the last rental car available in the region. If worst came to worse, I could sleep in the car. I mean, there were folks worse off than me. I was to meet the rest of my team when I arrived, and we would figure it out from there.
Sure enough, we found places to stay, and all was well. I was there four days when we received a call about some folks stranded at the airport. The airport was on high ground, so folks started to head that way when the water began to rise. There was no food or other provisions at the airport, and we were not sure what we would find when we arrived. So we commandeered a bus and a security detail, and off we went.
When we arrived, it was absolute chaos. People were everywhere. The place had an odor of fear and other emotions mixed with some things that it is not polite to talk about. People were huddled in corners and standing together in groups talking, and they all had this look of despair on their faces.
Just before we left, I decided to put on my dog collar and grab my bag with my priest stuff in it. As a chaplain, I always have this bag with me. As a matter of fact, it is out in the car right now. In this bag are various little books with prayers, items needed for Communion, and a little gold vessel that contains oil for anointing people. I grabbed the bag as a last thought and left my room to board the bus. I am glad I made that last-minute decision.
As we walked through the airport, a man came up to me and grabbed me by the shoulders. He was wearing camouflage, and I noticed that he had the medical symbol of an Army doctor on the collar points of his jacket. He looked me in the eyes and asked me if he had done the right thing. He kept asking repeatedly, “did I do the right thing.”
After he calmed down a bit, he told me he was the chief medical doctor for a group of Army reservists sent to the airport to set up a medical clinic, much like a MASH unit. They had limited supplies and all of these people, but the worst was the area where the nursing home patients were being cared for. When the water started to rise, those charged with the care of nursing home patients took off and left their patients behind. Many of them were rescued and brought to the airport. But, the medically worst of them were all being cared for in one spot.
Due to the lack of medical supplies, this doctor’s job was to decide who lived and who died, and it was eating him up inside. So we spoke for a bit, and then he asked if I would come and pray with the folx he was caring for.
The area was separate from all the others. It had begun its life as a gate area of the airport once filled with happy people setting off on journeys. Now, it had been transformed into a nursing unit filled with people waiting to go on another journey.
All the chairs had been removed, and there were Army stretchers on the floor in their place. The medical staff looked tired and worn, not unlike the medical folks we see these days dealing with COVID. Yet, they were doing the best they could with minimal supplies and no actual knowledge of the conditions of any of those in their care.
I prayed with the staff and allowed them some time to tell me their stories and where they were from; then, I went, knelt beside each person’s cot, prayed, and anointed them. They were someone’s parents, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, and friends. Each was a precious life abandoned by those charged with their care and nowhere, lying on an Army cot in an airport.
Today’s Gospel story is another story about anointing. The story takes place in Bethany at the home of Lazarus and his two sisters, Mary and Martha. We are told it is six days before the Passover, the last Passover that Jesus will celebrate. The earthly ministry of Jesus is coming to an end, and he knows it.
As they sat around talking, Mary opened a jar of anointing oil that filled the room with fragrance. I recall as if it were yesterday, the smells in the room where I was anointing people and the scent coming from that little oil vessel that I had. It is a scent of healing, of comfort of joy. It is a scent of hope and is a scent that reminds me of each person I have ever anointed with it.
Mary takes the ointment and begins to anoint Jesus with it. This is not the first time we have heard this story. In the other Gospels, it is another Mary; it is unclear who, that anoints the feet of Jesus. Bu this Mary, the sister of the man Jesus raised from the dead, anoints his feet and dries them with her hair. This is a very intimate moment shared between friends, friends that are almost relations.
By Jewish custom, the body is washed and anointed when a person dies. There is a theological reason and a very practical reason. Theologically it prepares the body for what comes next; practically, it is used to cover any smell that might develop. The body is then dressed and wrapped in a linen shroud from head to toe and placed in a tomb. What Mary is doing, whether she knows it or not, is unclear, is preparing Jesus for the next phase of his journey towards his eventual death.
Right away, Judas objects. This could have been sold and the money given to the poor. He says this could have fetched 300 Denarii, which equals about $950 in today’s currency or more than a year’s wages for the average person in 1st century Palestine. But Judas wants to give the money to the poor, or so he says.
But John tells a different story. John calls Judas a thief and that he will steal the money. On the surface, his motives might have looked as pure and caring as the motives of Mary, but just under the surface, there is a different story being told. Jesus tells Judas to leave her alone and let her do what she must do, just as Jesus will tell Judas to do what he must do in a weeks’ time.
Mary does not realize that she has just turned the page and began a new chapter in the story. I am not sure Jesus even knew when his end was coming, but in this scene, it is starting to become real for Jesus. He knows his death is not far off.
Here we see Jesus in a very human moment. He is having a good time with friends, sharing stories, food, and laughs. In these human moments, we are the closest to Jesus, and Jesus is the closest to us. It is in these moments that I get assurance that Jesus understands what I am going through. And it is in these moments of assurance I can give to someone who is facing their death.
Jesus makes a very confusing statement here; he says that the poor will always be with you. Over the years, this phrase of Jesus has been used to justify the lack of care and concern some have shown to the poor. But what Jesus is saying is that tomorrow the poor will still be here, but I won’t, so for just this moment, it is okay to focus on the task at hand. What Mary is doing by anointing Jesus is a task of love. Love for her friend and love for her teacher. She is preparing Jesus for the next phase of his journey.
Anointing with oil is an ancient custom and a sacramental act. Kings and Prophets are anointed before they begin their work or the next phase of their life. Priests and bishops are anointed with oil before starting the next step of their life. And oil is used for the sick and those dying as they prepare for their journey. It may not seem like much, but to that doctor in New Orleans, it meant that he had done his job as best he could.
In a few moments, we will gather for another sacramental act where we acknowledge God’s love for us through the mystery of Communion. Just like Mary anointed Jesus for his journey, this feeding with these simple gifts prepares us for our journey, which includes caring for others.
We are close to the feast of feasts, and there is still time for preparation. So take some time to spiritually prepare yourself for what is coming over these next days. Anoint yourself with the oil of God’s words and in prayer as we prepare to walk the road with Jesus.