Oil of gladness

One of my very favorite parts of being part of the Yale Divinity School community this semester has been attending daily worship at Marquand Chapel.  The services, which are intentionally ecumenical, have taken such a beautiful diversity of forms that I’ve had to start a box full of bulletins so I can hold onto the service ideas/hymns/prayers that I like.  There are a lot.

Worshiping at Marquand this semester has included experiences ranging from walking a labyrinth in silence to dancing a conga line while singing “Alleluia!”  Hymns have ranged from Sacred Harp music to Peruvian folk songs.  Prayers have been done in silence as well, through chant,  as well as in the words of T.S. Eliot, adapted from Four Quartets.  I’ve done liturgical dramas and celebrated a Eucharist service set to Mozart’s coronation mass.

Marquand has modeled the beauty of imagination and the loveliness of well-executed ecumenism.

Today we had a service of anointing.  The leader–and I use the term loosely, as the services are group-led an it’s often hard to tell who’s in charge–told us a little bit about the role of anointing in the Bible, and shared a bit of personal reflection.  Then another person blessed the oil, and little dishes were given to the end of rows.  We were encouraged to anoint one another’s palms with a sign of the cross while blessing each other either silently or aloud.  It was lovely, simple, and meaningful.

The oil on my palms has now been soaked up by my skin–eliciting pious reflection on my need to moisturize more often–but the smell of the spices in the oil lingers.  The scent of it makes me recall the anointing of Jesus’ feet in John 12.  The smell on my hands brought to life the figure in my imagination of a young woman kneeling at Jesus’ feet.  She is blushing at the murmurs of the disciples, and she can feel Martha’s eyes burning disapprovingly into the back of her skull, but she continues anyway.  Her hands are cold and her palms are sweaty as she handles the dusty feet of her teacher, and a small warmth bursts in her breast as she realizes that he is not going to stop her, send her away, or be sharp with her.  She takes a deep breath, and as the smell of nard fills her nostrils, she recklessly pours the contents of the jar over Jesus’ feet, making sure it runs between his toes, watching it drip on the floor.

She sets down the jar and reaches up to her bound hair, and loosens it.  It pours over her shoulders like the oil poured over the Jesus’ feet, black and thick and wavy.  She bows her head low so that she can take her hair and sop up the oil.  She can’t see the stares of Martha or Peter or Judas any more than she can see the gaze of Jesus.  Her hair grows shiny and greasy, and as she finishes and winds it back up on her head, the smell of nard surrounds her like an aura.  She hardly hears the words that Jesus says to the disciples, because her head is light with relief and her heart is pounding at her own daring, and with her love for the teacher whose perfumed feet will soon be pierced.

Jesus praises Mary for her act of worship, but in my imagination Mary was never in a particularly worshipful frame of mind in this moment.  She is nervous and anxious and conscious of everything she’s doing wrong in everyone else’s eyes even as she performs what is right in her own.

This helps me, really, as a future leader in the church.  How often is it that a fresh idea will cross my mind for worship or for a sermon, only to be followed by the thought, “If you do that, you’ll surely upset somebody.”

How about you?  Would you like an Alleluia-ing conga line in your own congregation?  Is your enthusiasm dampened by the imagined look on the face on the congregant who complains about how the sharing of the peace ruins the mood of worship?

The balloons represent ideas to revitalize worship. Stephen Colbert represents the council president who, as he likes to remind me, did not vote for my call.

I wonder what it would look like it the leaders of the Lutheran church took all their joy and all their imagination and all their longing to worship Jesus in a way that has more meaning than “the way we’ve always done it” and said to hell with it to everything else. Don’t get me wrong–the safety-blanket of tradition has plenty going on that’s wonderful, but is the church using it to the point that it’s smothering the fire of the Spirit that longs to move through our acts of worship?

When we worship with fear and trembling, is it because God is so great and Christ is so gracious, or is it because the threat of pissed-off congregants has us shaking in our loafers?  If it’s the latter, maybe we’re worshiping the wrong party.

The scent of nard hanging around Mary’s head likely didn’t protect her from being taken aside later by Martha for a scolding, or from Judas’ derisive comment.  But maybe it anchors her to a moment of “to hell with it” worship, a moment where anointing Jesus’ feet was more important than anything else, a moment where being pious wasn’t about being in the right frame of mind or being well-behaved, but where it meant daring to get oil stains in the upholstery and stinking up the house with new smells and wasting expensive resources on gestures of love, because it was the truest, most authentic expression of her worship she could imagine.

I’m still imagining what that could look like from my heart’s perspective.  What about yours?

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4 thoughts on “Oil of gladness

  1. Not sure exactly about the Conga-Line Alleluia, but we need more creativity in worship–focused, intentional, liturgical creativity. We did an experiment this year, letting large groups of students organize an entire season of worship (we did this with Lent and Easter). It has had mixed results–some of the worship services have been very well thought-out and well-led, but others haven’t. It takes a focus and motivation often lacking at the end of a term to make it all work.

    1. Thanks for your perspective, Ken. That’s such a great experiment–what a lovely thing for a seminary to place so much faith in the student body. I can certainly see the problems unfolding at the end of the semester, though.

      At YDS, they seem to have hit a working balance of services planned by students and services planned by the liturgical team (a combination of students and staff). You’ve inspired me to ask more questions about this balance…I wonder how long it took them to find a formula that works this well?

  2. This is a great post! I love your interpretation of Mary in it. Mary in this story has been continually warped as time goes on to emphasize the sensual image of her as a prostitute, which is an interesting interpretation to read as a woman.
    As far as creative worship goes. I think Ken is right when he says it takes thought and foresight. It also takes balance. While I love a lot of forms of creative worship (and would have loved to been a part of everything you mentioned), I feel sometimes creative forms of worship can feel forced to the participants. I used to be an education major, it it was the same way in the classroom. It’s great to be creative, but at the same time there are moments when creativity gets tiring. It’s not a meaningful activity and becomes simply a way to break up the monotony of the church schedule.
    Thanks for sharing,
    Kathryn

    1. Amen to your words about Mary! Yeah, the combination of slightly different biblical accounts of the anointing of Jesus’ feet combined by centuries of patriarchal interpretation of the texts has really done a number on her. Oof.

      As to your words about forced creativity, I think you have a very valid point. There’s a sweet spot somewhere between being creative in liturgy because it’s an authentic and necessary response to the spontaneous nature of God’s grace, and being creative for the sake of being creative. The latter can certainly do more harm than good to our worship lives!

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