Passion Sunday Sermon

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

I realised yesterday before I wrote this sermon that I have no idea what spikenard smells like.

That it is basically an essential oil derived from the root of a plant related to Valerion which grows in the Himalayas was fairly easy to establish. But what does it smell like.

And what does Christianity smell like, for that matter.

This woman, Mary of Bethany appears in two significant places in the gospels and in both stories, smell is one of the most important features. Firstly she is there when Lazarus is raised from the grave – with the fear of the stench of his rotten body a distinctive and memorable part of the story. And now she pours her perfume on another body – a living body. For she anoints Jesus with her spikenard and wipes his feet with her hair. And her actions are in strong distinction from her sister who serves the meal.

There are so many questions to ask of this gospel reading. Who was she? Why did she do what she did.

And what does spikenard smell like? And why do we read this right now, on Passion Sunday when by tradition and habit our thoughts turn towards the cross.

I decided yesterday afternoon that the most fundamental thing I needed to know was what spikenard smells like.

(It is amazing what a preacher is prepared to do in order to put off actually writing the sermon).

I came to the conclusion that the West End was the perfect place to buy spikenard – if you can’t buy it round here, where can you buy it.

Well, an hour trudging around in rain soon proved to me that it is probably pretty hard to come by anywhere. Health Food shopkeepers shook their heads. Herbalists gazed at me with regret. Even the woman in the esoteric crystal shop up on Queen Margaret Drive admitted to her sadness that spikenard was not something she could help me with. (And she seemed to have answers to problems I’d never even thought of).

I came wearily home. And I turned to the internet. And quickly I found some information. I managed to get a description. I found it on an aromatherapy website, so as any of the many medics in the congregation will affirm, it must be 100% true.

It said…

Well no, let’s leave that to the end, for it might give us a clue why we read this story now and lead us on into this most sacred season.

Let us turn instead to the scandal of the story – Jesus’s comment: “The poor will be with you always, but you do not always have me”.

Gandhi famously is reported to have said “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”

I kind of know what he meant, but is it this Christ that he was talking about.

A Jesus who seems content to lie back and have his feet done over with costly smellies which dismissing the concern about the poor which Judas, forever painted as the villain of the piece, raises.

Surely some, at least, of our sentiment must go Judas’s way this time.

Surely some were bound to think that Jesus’s attitude towards the poor was a scandal even without the salacious detail about the hair, the perfume and the feet. (And things don’t really get much more intimate than a feet, perfume and hair combination, do they).

There are two ways of interpreting this that I find vaguely plausible.

Firstly, to return to a theme that I was preaching about the other week. – that this is a story told to make us think about our own generosity towards Jesus; a story told to help us to think about what giving is all about.

This is plausible.

Christians have often tended to give what they have left over to God rather than to give from their abundance.

I remember once in another church sitting in a vestry meeting that was discussing the problem that no-one could get the church carpet clean. “So,” I asked from the chair, “how many hoovers do we have?” The answer came very quickly: “Five and none of them work.”

That kind of thing is a good example of a church world where people give their cast-offs, their left-overs.

Mary’s actions give us the hint of the joy that comes from giving from the best of what we have.

The smell of the spikenard filled the whole of the house. But what did it smell of and why did she do it before he headed to Jerusalem?

The other interpretation of this is to remember that the fourth evangelist plays around with time. The writer appears to be aware of other gospels and then takes events and plays his own theological games with the narratives, changing the chronology to suit whatever theological point is trying to be made.

Maybe if we do the same with this story as the author did with other stories, maybe we can make new sense of it and find a theological truth.

For me, I find the conjunction of these two responses to Jesus – firstly to pour costly stuff on him and secondly to cry out for justice for the poor are incompatible within the strict narrative of the story but far from incompatible in the world we live in, if we answer the simple question, where is the body of Christ now? Where is the face of Christ, the body of Christ, the feet of Christ.

If the face of Christ is not seen in the poor then our faith is nothing much.

I take this not as a call to turn our faces towards Jesus and away from the poor at all. Rather I say, “Where is Christ to be found” and find myself turning my face towards those who are most vulnerable.

And it is the most vulnerable upon whom the church should be lavishing its attention, its love and its care.

Generosity is not simply about money either. I don’t think that the world will be sorted by having a whip-round. I think the world will be sorted by compassionate hearts bringing intelligent minds and offering time, attention and passion to sorting out a world which is simply not fair enough yet, not whole enough yet, not right enough yet for any of us to be satisfied.

Jesus headed off from Bethany to Jerusalem after this incident.

What was she anointing him for? And why do we read it now, just before our eyes turn to face Jerusalem and all that will happen there to him?

Here’s what I learned from that aromatherapy website about spikenard:

Spikenard essential oil is highly regarded as a calming, oil. Native to the Himalayan mountains, the plant grows wild in India, Nepal, Bhutan, at elevations between 11,000 and 17,000 feet. (No wonder it was expensive)

Spikenard was very precious in ancient times, used only by kings, priests and high initiates.

The psychological effects of spikenard pertain mainly to the heart-centre and the soul. With its warm and earthy aroma, Spikenard helps sooth the deepest forms of anxiety, and like Myrrh, (Hmm, where did we hear about Myrrh?) can instil a profound sense of peace. Spikenard oil is indicated for the individual who is searching for spiritual certainty.

I have no idea whether Mary of Bethany believed a word of that. But I know she loved him. And she wanted to do everything she could to comfort him.

And the smell of justice; the smell of love; the smell of her spikenard filled not just her house, but the whole earth.

As we shall see.



  1. Thank you for this excellent sermon.

  2. Thanks for this sermon Kelvin. I now know more about spikenard than I did (which was nothing much!). And I also like the Gandhi reference.

  3. Diarmuid o says

    Very thoughtful.. Love the Quote on the smell of justice.. Love etc. thank you!

  4. According to my sources spikenard is a sharp smell, somewhere between mint and ginseng. Now you see, I had it more myrrh like, more heady. But I can see that mint and ginseng would be better at covering up rotting body smells.

  5. kennedy fraser says

    Our associate priest (Bryan Owen) managed to get a spikenard candle for his sermon on Sunday

  6. Rosemary Hannah says

Speak Your Mind