Sermon 17 March 2013

Silvirkrin and Extreme Unction

On Friday David Almond, the author of children’s books, was the guest on Desert Island Discs. He spoke of seeing things out of the side of his eye, things on the edge of vision. Sometimes these were the things which inspired him to write – they were things that gave a supernatural feeling to the very ordinary. For the 34 years that I have been in the Community, there was until very recently one little item like that. It resided in the dispensary and as it was something that I would never use I never paid much attention to it but it was always there. I passed it every time I went into that room. I guess that it was something which none of you used, for the substance contained in it never decreased but I’m sure that you will recognise the description – a little bottle of Silvikrin Men’s Tonic Hair oil. The art deco shape of the bottle indicates that it goes back at least to the sixties but I suspect that it was probably about sixty years old. Maybe it was a Christmas present to one of the Fathers who tried it once and did not like it, for the oil was only a little short of the top of the bottle.

It was so evocative of an age, which disappeared a long time ago, of film stars with slick shiny hair, of good looking men for whom the girls always swooned, of a carefree world of romance. My contemporaries and I thought we were terrific when, with our hair newly styled and combed, we would go to church hall parties and dances and expected the local Girl Guide troop to fall at our feet. When you are between 10 and 14 years old anything is possible. We strutted up and down the Cregagh Road and, to use an Ulsterism, ‘we thought we were no goat’s toe’. At about 16 I gave up using hair oil forever but in those few years we felt we were Kings. Indeed didn’t the great king himself – Elvis – wear hair oil?

The first kings that we read of wearing hair oil are Saul and David. At each of their coronations Samuel poured oil over them – he anointed them. When he did this they did a strange thing happened. The records say that God’s Spirit rushed on them. They became like men possessed. Indeed they were possessed. They were agents of God’s purpose and that appears to be the Old Testament's understanding of anointing. So the great king of Persia – Cyrus – becomes God’s Messiah, his anointed one through whom the People of God will be restored to their land.

Oil is used likewise for the consecration of Priests – it is like fine oil on the head of Aaron that runs down to the skirts of his clothing – and it sets the prophets apart to speak God’s word in season and out of season.

The sweet smelling oil seems to have visibly represented the Spirit and to have been the sacramental means of its transmission.

So today in the Gospel we read of Mary anointing Jesus. The anointing of the saviour has played a big part in the drama of the Incarnation – from the myrrh presented by the Magi to the three possibly separate anointings by the three different women, to Mary Magdalene bearing spices and oils to the tomb on Easter morning, to the title Messiah which has become the surname of Jesus. Up until this point Jesus the Messiah has been recognised by many as a great prophet, now he prepares to manifest himself as priest and king and for this he is anointed.

So it is in John’s Gospel that Mary anoints Jesus feet and he says "she has prepared me for my burial". What a funny thing to say – it doesn’t sound much like Kingship does it? Yet this is the Gospel of John - a Gospel full of irony and mystic meaning, a Gospel in which the crucifixion is portrayed as his coronation. Mary’s action is the introit to the last great act in the drama of our salvation. She anoints him – probably the simple act of easing his tired feet, sore and swollen from walking the dusty roads of Palestine. In doing so she is actually preparing him for the passion. Whatever he has to face, however cruelly he is treated, however frightened he may be he will take this act of love to and through the gate of death where he will become King of the living and the dead and where he becomes the high priest who goes through the veil for the sake of those he loves.

So the oil continues to flow, bearing down through the ages all the blessings of Christ’s love through us as we love one another and bear one another’s burdens. It will be there to strengthen and confirm Jan in his commitment to Christ when the Bishop anoints him on Tuesday. It will be there for you as it has been for members of the Community when you have hands laid on you to take authority and to share in Christ’s Holy Priesthood. It is there to help the sick as the Church anoints and administers Christ’s healing touch. As Mary prepared Jesus for his burial so by his grace those near death are prepared by the final sacraments for the road that they are about to take.

Mary’s anointing said to Jesus ‘You are loved’.  Jesus by his saving Passion and by his abiding presence says to you and to me ‘You are my beloved’. Let’s take him at his word.

John Gribben CR