Accept My Living Sacrifice
A Sermon for Holy Monday
by Jayan Nair
“Let my prayer be set forth in your sight as incense,
The lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice.”
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.
When I was in about the 3rd grade, my parents gave me one of those 3D puzzle models. You know: the ones made out of those thick cardboard pieces that you fit together to build replicas of famous buildings and monuments. This one was a model of Solomon’s Temple from the Old Testament. It included little cardboard renderings of all the Temple furnishings: the altar for the burnt offerings out in the courtyard… the lampstands in the sanctuary… the whole kit and caboodle. I loved every bit of it.
But the furnishing that interested me most was the altar of incense. It was pretty small—just about an inch square in the model. And it sat within the Holy Place of the Temple, just in front of the veil that concealed the Holy of Holies and the Ark of the Covenant. We’d learned about it in Bible class just a few months before. It was used for two things:
One was the daily offerings of incense: Every morning, and every evening, a priest would go in and pour incense on the hot coals. And the entire, gold-plated sanctuary would be filled with a billowing cloud of smoke, saturating the air with the sweet scent of spices.
The altar’s other function only came around once a year. As part of the ceremonies on Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), the High Priest would go in and sprinkle the sacrificial blood on the altar of incense, ritually cleansing Israel from all their sins.
The vibrancy of that Temple drama absolutely enthralled me. Imagine the bright colors of the Temple drapes… The muffled din of the crowds waiting outside the doors, as the sign of their repentance is physically offered to God… The potent smells of incense, lamp oil and blood… For a kid who loved pageantry in all its forms, this scene was captivating. And 9 year old Jayan imagined himself into the scene with gusto, watching it play out in his mind’s eye. What he wouldn’t have given to step in and participate. The beauty of the moment—even thousands of years removed—was intoxicating.
Approaching today’s Gospel, I see this pageantry all over the place, playing out just beneath the surface—barely beneath the surface. Isaiah’s voice is reverberating in the background, reassuring us that liberation is at hand, ushered in by a servant so gentle that he doesn’t even break a reed that’s already been bruised and battered. God reminds us that He has led us out by hand from slavery and tended to us along the way. And he promises that through us, SO many more will be lead out of the dark dungeon of death into the light. The former things have come to pass, and, new things I now declare.
The writer of Hebrews immediately wraps this echoing proclamation of freedom into the Temple drama. Christ, the servant promised through Isaiah, is dressed in the vestments of the great High Priest—the high priest of the good things that are to come and have already come.
The blood he sprinkles on the altar of incense—His own blood—delivers to us the eternal inheritance that we’ve been promised… that Isaiah reminded us of: being freed from the chains of death and lead out of the prison into the open air.
When the curtain opens on our Gospel scene, this inheritance has just been doled out in a passionately moving way. Lazarus was already entombed and rotting—encased in the utter darkness of a rock-hewn tomb—sealed up behind a stone. But Jesus called him out from that darkness into the light of the promised resurrection.
This movement of transformation resonates powerfully with my own story of recovery from trauma and addiction. Addiction functions very much as a spiritual tomb—prolonged intoxication can’t help but cocoon you, with your pain, cut off from the means of grace, until your wounds fester.
Once I had buried myself like that, survival… resurrection… salvation from that slow spiritual death… couldn’t have come if God hadn’t reached into my cave and pulled me out into light and life. I needed Christ to come to me in my death and remind me that he sprinkled his own blood on the altar on Good Friday, to secure my inheritance of living abundantly.
It’s the potency of this miraculous transformation that I carry with me as I sit down at the table with Jesus and Lazarus and Martha and Mary. They’ve gone through a rollercoaster of emotions in the previous chapter. So, it’s no wonder the response was… well, as Fr. Craig put it the other week… “outrageous.”
Looking back on my story, I can imagine some of the potency of what they encountered. The knowledge that Christ—the most perfect High Priest imaginable—had gone into that sacred place and poured himself out onto the altar, so that we might have life and have it abundantly. The whole thing sparks a surge of peace and gratitude and healing that fills up your heart to overflowing.
This is the overwhelming wave of gratitude that we get to see Mary pour out lavishly onto Jesus’ feet. As another Gospel puts it, she “did what she could.” She offers up everything she has—a year’s worth of wages—in praise and thanksgiving. The perfume of pure nard—a spice used in the Temple incense—fills the room with its aroma.
And we’re invited to imagine Mary there in the Temple with Jesus, offering incense on the altar, just as he offers his blood. This is her response of gratitude for the eternal life made manifest. She is participating in a small way in the very sacrifice that makes eternal life manifest: that sacrifice that we will mark again on Good Friday.
Dwelling on the scene, I find myself holding an alabaster jar full of my own gratitude, flowing from awe at the healing God has accomplished in my life. And I wonder, “How can I do what Mary is doing?” Drunk on the vivid and moving imagery of anointing Christ—the one who announced and accomplished my transformation—I find myself longing for an opportunity to likewise demonstrate my thanks and participate in that great High Priestly act.
And the wonderful reality is that the principal act of Christian worship—the Eucharist—is just that kind of opportunity for us.
One of our Eucharistic prayers exhorts us to offer a “sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving.” In the Sacrament, we get to bring the incense of our prayers to the altar, where Jesus offers them along with his blood. We get to participate in the most perfect Yom Kippur possible. As the gifts of bread & wine are brought forward to the altar, we get to join Mary, pouring out the precious gifts of our hearts at Christ’s feet.
This imagery has powerfully shaped how I see the Eucharist as both a response to and a participation in my own healing and integration.
I get to take my gratitude for God’s rescuing me from my imprisonment to death. I get to take that and offer it up.
And in that very act of offering, God’s promise of justice in healing my wounds (letting me receive the balm of grace), of justice in giving me a place at the table (letting me be reconciled to the Church that hurt me), of justice in making me a sign to others of God’s victory (through my ministry in that Church)… In the offering of the incense of my praise & the blood of Christ’s sacrifice, God’s promise is strengthened and made more tangibly present for me.
This is the beauty I have found in the Eucharist, and why answering the call to be truly present in the Liturgy is so important for changing ourselves and the world.
If we truly put ourselves on the altar, we get to taste the freedom of that promised resurrection just a little more vividly each time.
Through Mary’s example in pouring absurdly expensive perfume on Jesus’ feet, we can hear God beckoning to us to relish in this sacrifice and to respond with lavish enthusiasm.
That’s what I want to invite you to relish in, too. Soak in the beauty of it. And, in the fullness of time, offer yourselves as living sacrifices in response.
God has taken each of us by hand and kept us. He has saved us from ourselves and from the darkness around us. Bring your gratitude for this tender care to the altar. Let it be united with Christ’s sacrifice. And receive that healing—renewed and strengthened—in the Body and Blood of our Lord Christ Jesus.