Christ is in our midst! He is and ever shall be!
In the Name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Then, six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany where Lazarus was who had been dead, whom He had raised from the dead. There they made Him a supper; . . . Then Mary took a pound of very costly oil of spikenard, anointed the feet of Jesus, and wiped His feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the oil.
Yesterday, beloved, we stood before the tomb of the four-days-dead Lazarus, the stench of death filling our nostrils, its pungent and repugnant odor clinging to our clothing, reminding us at every turn of our own mortality. It is the smell of death. We heard Him Who is “’the Resurrection and the Life’” speak the words of command, “’Lazarus, come forth!’” And Lazarus four-days-in-the-tomb came forth enlivened by the very Spirit prophesied by the Prophet Ezekiel to dry bones at the command of God, the Lord, the Giver of Life. And bone came upon bone, “and sinews and flesh grew upon them, and skin came upon them.” And the Spirit of God infused them with His breath and the dead stood upon their feet, “a very great congregation.” “’Thus saith the Lord, “Behold, I will open your tombs, and will bring you up out of your tombs, . . . .”’” (Ek. 37:1-14). “’It is the Spirit Who gives Life,’” Jesus says, “’the flesh profits nothing. The words that I speak to you are spirit, and they are Life’” (Jn. 6:63).
Today, beloved, six days before the Passover, we gather once more with our Lord, around the table in the home of His most beloved friend, Lazarus. A sumptuous feast has been prepared as a memorial to the miracle of Life from death. It is a fare befitting a king, but not any old king. Indeed, the King of kings and the Lord of lords is present at the table of the four-days-dead Lazarus, transforming the home into a cathedral and the table into an Altar (Rv. 19:16). But, somehow, this feast, though sumptuous indeed, is yet meager by comparison when juxtaposed to the awesome manifestation of the power of Almighty God in the great resurrection of the four-days-dead Lazarus! It is a feast – a sacramental and mystical feast – pointing to the reality of which it is but a type: the reality of Great and Holy Pascha!
Today, beloved brethren, not the stench of Lazarus’ tomb fills our nostrils, but the sweet odor of our Lord’s Empty Tomb. It is the sweet perfume of a costly sacrifice foolishly lavished, according to some. But, in the eyes of the Lord, it is an offering made to God, “a sweet savor unto the Lord,” as attested to in Sacred Scripture and not to be disdained (Gn. 8:21; Ex.29:18; Lv. 1:7-9, 17; 2:1-2, 9). It is Mary’s gift, foolishly lavished, according to some, a sacrifice of her love for the Lord pointing to the Agape Sacrifice of our Lord on the Altar of the Cross, which, too, has been foolishly lavished, according to some. To us who believe, it is the wonderful aroma of the sweet perfume of the supremely costly spikenard, poured out on our Lord as a sacrifice worthy of His glory, the glory of the only-begotten Son of God (Jn. 1:14, 18). “And the house was filled with the fragrance [the sweet savor, the aroma] of the oil.” It is not death that is recalled, but the triumph over death by our Lord that is memorialized forever.
This sweet-smelling savor, this aroma is liturgical in nature, long associated with the offerings made to God. The use of aromatic incense in the worship of God has a long tradition in Israel and the Church. It is not only divinely revealed that it be used, but it is prophesied in Sacred Scripture to be used, even by Gentiles!
The burden of the word of the Lord to Israel by the hand of Malachi: ‘For from the rising of the sun even unto the going down of the same, My Name shall be great among the Gentiles. And in every place incense shall be offered unto My Name, and a pure offering; for My Name shall be great among the heathen,’ saith the Lord of hosts (Ma. 1:11).
This was the verse Fr. Peter Gillquist, of blessed memory, confessed wrestling with as he was making his way into Holy Orthodoxy, or more accurately perhaps, Holy Orthodoxy was making its way into him permeating him with its sweet-smelling aroma. The fragrance of incense fills the Temple of the Lord Who has come to His House and sits at His Table with us. It is poured out on the hot burning coals of our Lord’s divinity. The smoke arises, lifting up our prayers as the evening sacrifice (Ps. 140 :2; Rv. 5:8; 8:3-4), and its holy fragrance clings to our clothes, even to the permeating of our souls, if we in faith receive its blessing. It sanctifies and purifies and cleanses, and it is a symbol of the Presence of the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Giver of Life, the great mystical cloud that engulfs and encapsulates the mountain of God in Sacred Scripture. It is a sacrifice, foolishly lavished, according to some, but nonetheless one worthy of God and befitting His glory.
St. Paul captures this image in his Epistles. He speaks of it in connection with the supreme Sacrifice of our Lord offered up on the Cross for us sinners, and he speaks of it in connection with our worship of Christ God Himself in acts of sacrificial love. “Therefore be imitators of God as dear children,” he says. “And walk in love, as Christ also has loved us and given Himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet-smelling aroma” (Ep. 5:2). The sacrifice of our Lord God and Saviour, Jesus Christ, and our sacrifice for His sake in imitation of God are interwoven.
In Philippians from which we read today but later on in the same chapter, the Apostle links Christian charity to the sacrificial sweet-smelling savor. “Indeed I have all and abound,” he says. “I am full, having received from Epaphroditus the things sent from you, a sweet-smelling aroma, an acceptable sacrifice, well pleasing to God” (Pp. 4:18). Everything we do – who we are – flows from the worship of God. St. Peter likewise makes that connection for us. He writes,
Coming to Him as to a living stone, rejected indeed by men, but chosen by God and precious, you also, as living stones, are being built up a spiritual house, a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ (1 Pe. 2:4-5).
The One Who comes riding on the foal of an ass, comes to restore us to Paradise and to our God-ordained dignity of worshipping Him rightly in His holy Temple on the mountain of God.
And, finally, my favorite icon “written” by St. Paul. “Now thanks be to God Who always leads us in triumph in Christ,” says the Apostle,
“and through us diffuses the fragrance of His knowledge in every place. For we are to God the fragrance of Christ among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing” (2 Cr. 2:14-15).
We can see the victory march of the Church – the Great Entrance of our great Conqueror and Saviour, “the King of all, Who comes invisibly upborne by the angelic hosts” (Divine Liturgy Cherubicon). His Death strikes the fatal blow to the kingdom of death; His Resurrection bestows Life Eternal! “[T]hanks be to God Who always leads us in triumph in Christ.” Let us never forget that it is Christ God Who has conquered our ancient foes on our behalf and bestows upon us His Life-giving, life-transforming, life-transfiguring gift.
And, now, as we live “through Him, with Him, in Him” He uses the Church and her baptized brood to “[diffuse] the sweet-smelling aroma of His knowledge in every place,” just as the Prophet Malachi foretold. “For we are to God the fragrance of Christ among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing.” The sweet-smelling aroma of the Church’s sacrifice wafts throughout this world. To those who are perishing, “we are the aroma of death leading to death,” but to those who are being saved, we are “the aroma of Life leading to Life.” And then the Apostle, struck by the enormity of this Mystery, confesses in utter humility, “And who is sufficient for these things?” (2 Cr. 2:16). Indeed. . .
It is only in the humble uniting of ourselves with Mary, the sister of the four-days-dead Lazarus, in the sacrificial offering of ourselves in love for our Lord, “a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God” (Rm. 12:1-2), that God can and will use us for His glory, so that as Mary’s sacrifice filled the house with its fragrance, so will He use ours to fill His house, the world He has come to take back from sin, death, and the devil.
Pascha is coming.
Though the prayers of our holy Fathers, O Lord Jesus Christ our God,
have mercy on us and save us. Amen.
Glory to Jesus Christ! Glory forever!
VIGIL PROPERS: PROPERS:
Gn. 49:1-2, 8-12 Pp. 4:4-9
Zp. 3:14-19 Jn. 12:1-18