The Sacred Field

Apr 7, 2019 by

Communion Meditation by Bob Tees


John 12:1-8

Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead.  There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him.  Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.  But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said,  “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?”  (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.)  Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial.  You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”


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As many of you know I have been a hospital chaplain for many years.  When I share a story about work with hospital patients I am very careful to honour privacy and confidentiality.  I make the story as anonymous as possible.  This story happened quite a while ago and I won’t give very much detail, but one aspect of the story is so mysteriously relevant to today’s gospel story I feel it wants to be told.    I met with a patient who knew she was going to die very soon.  When a nurse had asked if she wanted to talk with someone from Spiritual Care she said no.  But then she told the nurse about many of her spiritual questions and anxieties!   When the nurse told me this I said maybe I should drop by and see if she would like a chat.  Sometimes people say not to spiritual care because they are afraid some minister is going to give them a guilt trip, instead of compassionate conversation, which is what we are actually about.  I had two, one-hour talks with her that day as her thoughts, memories and feelings flowed, and I gathered the many strands of conversation into a prayer.

At the outset of our conversation she surprised me.  After brief introductions she welcomed me to sit down and she gestured to her table-tray and said, “that is my favourite perfume.  You can put some on me while we talk.”   This was something I had never done before!   [I had once attended an aromatherapy presentation at St Joseph’s Villa, where I discovered that extracts of fragrances can be quite therapeutic.  I learned that the most universally appealing fragrances are citrus, nutmeg, cinnamon, and lavender.  This gave me some sense of the therapeutic meaning of fragrances.]   It was such a surprising and gracious request that I said, “sure,” and she handed me the bottle and offered her arm.  While we talked I gently applied small amounts of perfume to her forearm.  We were happy to violate the hospital’s “fragrance free” policy!  The scent of the perfume wafted through our gentle and reflective conversation.    We had a second conversation later that day and the following day we spoke again, again with perfume, and her death came not long after.   I was moved by this brief, deep, holy encounter.    The day after she had died it came to me, “that moment is like the story of the woman who put perfume on Jesus’ feet.”    I felt a rush of energy at this realization.   I was not conscious of this story at all during the pastoral visit.  The conversation and surprising perfume request all unfolded spontaneously with no sense of the bible story as a reference point in mind.   I had told my friend and work colleague Donna about the perfume visit and when I later told her about my realization about the biblical story, she said, “Oh, yes, that is the first thing I thought of.”

Upon reflection I felt like my visit with that patient was a sacred echo of the story of the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet with nard.  It seemed significant that therapeutic contact happened without awareness of the bible story.  In hindsight I felt the message for me was that the sacred comes towards us, influences our thoughts, shapes our actions, whether we are conscious of it or not.  It is like there is a sacred field, a field of transforming energy that arrives in key moments, gracing us with blessing, touch, understanding, and the fragrance of peace.  The sacred field becomes present independent of anything we do.  We can only respond, consent, receive.    As the Isaiah text we heard, “See I am doing a new thing.  Now it springs forth.  Do you not perceive it?”

As I thought of this sacred field so vital and redeeming, another thought came: “Well if it is true about this sacred field, then why is life not continual skipping in sunlit sacred meadows?   Why so little consciousness of this wonder?”  Then I thought, well, the biblical story speaks to this too.  There is the Judas-moment, cutting in to criticize and condemn.    Disguising his aggression as charity, Judas condemns the wastefulness of Mary’s act of love.   How many ways such Judas-moments cut into our world!   Violence pretending to be virtue.   Yet even so, the One who is the very source of the sacred field, says, “Leave her alone.”   A protective word brings the holy meaning back into place.   “She bought it so that she might keep if for the day of my burial.”   Mary is intuitively connected to the truth of death, and on some level, the sorrowful fate of Jesus.  She responds to that truth with an act of grace and beauty.

As we come to this table we hear words that speak of another act of grace: “this is my body, given for you…  this is my blood, shed for you…”   This is the love with which you have been loved.

And so may we in some small way, some genuine way, become a little more aware that there is a sacred field that comes towards us, abides within us  – a mysterious presence of new being that clarifies thought, opens the heart, inspires touch, stirs creativity, brings healing and justice, and touches our feet with grace.   Let us learn to say “yes” to the sacred field when it arrives among us and within us, and surrender to its wonder.



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Afterword for Good Friday and Easter

Just as Judas aggressively condemns the sacredness in Mary’s actions, later we see this aggression magnified staggeringly as the mob gathers in violence to assail the sacred in Jesus, culminating in the cross.  (“O Sacred head, sore wounded…”) In the unspeakable darkness of the cross, it seems the sacred field is entirely vanquished.   All light extinguished, all songs silenced, the fragrance of love exchanged for the stench of decay.   In Lent and Easter we consider this dissolution of the sacred.   And we consider the mystery that Love makes the dissolution of the sacred somehow to be the new heart of the sacred story, as the sacred field by some miracle pulses again in life.   In this mysterious reversal a great hope beckons to say that even as death overcomes the One who most embodies love, the sacred field sings anew and makes death to be a line of verse in an everlasting song, each life held precious as a melodic phrase in a sacred symphony.


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