When my parents “downsized” to a smaller home a few years ago, they invited my siblings and me to take anything we wanted that they weren’t taking with the new move. One of the treasures I snagged was a pale yellow plastic bottle opener. You don’t see this type of bottle opener much anymore.
On one side it has a rounded, blunt tool for popping off a Coke bottle top. That’s still useful today because not all bottles twist off. And it has a triangular tool that is made to pierce the top of a tin can and make a triangular opening. Then you’d pierce a smaller triangle on the other side to let the air flow so you could drink your Grape Nehi Soda.
You see kids, we didn’t always have pop tops or aluminum cans.
A corkscrew folded out of the back of it, but at some point that corkscrew got broken so there’s just a nub – maybe a third of it – still there.
It’s worthless. One of its three functions is broken. Another literally been barely used for about 50 years. The last is easily replaced by a half dozen other implements in our kitchen drawer. But I wanted it. No one else did. Why?
Because it takes me back to a time of riding bikes and playing games with the other boys in the neighborhood, of my young mother and young father, my older brother and little sisters, our faithful dog and that Nehi Grape Soda pouring into my mouth on a hot summer day, of a simpler time and place that is gone except for memory. Sure, I have hard and painful memories, too, but that bottle opener seems to be tied to the good ones that fill me with a sense of gratitude for that time of my life. I miss them and I love them.
William Temple was the Archbishop of Canterbury for just a little more than two years, from the spring of 1942 until his untimely death in the fall of 1944. He wrote a commentary on the Gospel of John that remains among the very best commentaries ever produced on any book of the Bible. As he wrote it, the rise of Nazism in Germany and Italy spread the looming shadow of world war that would break out shortly after it was published in 1939. It was a very dark time.
He regards this scene of Mary wiping Jesus’ feet with expensive perfume and her hair as a moment of intense gratitude as well as looming trouble. We know Mary from Luke’s accounts of her washing Jesus’s feet with her tears and anointing them another time because he had delivered her from her sin. And later, that famous scene of her sitting at Jesus’ feet while her sister Martha was busy in the kitchen and Jesus telling Martha that Mary had chosen the better part.
This scene immediately follows Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. In short, Martha and Mary had sent word to Jesus that their brother was gravely ill. But Jesus waited until Lazarus had died, then waited a few more days to make sure Lazarus was good and dead before coming. The sisters were upset with Jesus, but he told them it was for God’s glory and called Lazarus out of the tomb – and in front of a large crowd.
That caused a huge stir. It helps explain why just a few days later people are waving palm branches and crying hosanna when Jesus comes into Jerusalem. People ran to tell the high priest Caiaphas and the plot to kill Jesus gathered momentum. That disturbance is a threat to the Jewish and Roman authorities. Sensing the danger and knowing Passover is near, Jesus goes a bit underground.
Mary comes to anoint Jesus with an expensive perfumed oil out of an alabaster jar. She wipes his feet with it and dries them with her hair. Now, there are no tears. She is doing this out of sheer devotion and love borne out of gratitude. Although her actions will take on a whole other significance very soon – the entry to Jerusalem is coming quickly in verse 12 – she is looking back; back to all that Jesus had done in delivering her from her sins, back to his recent raising of her brother Lazarus from death itself. She is looking back in love and she is looking back in thanksgiving.
William Temple wrote, “It is probable that in most of us the spiritual life is impoverished and stunted because we give so little place to gratitude. It is more important to thank God for blessings received than to pray for them beforehand. For that forward-looking prayer, though right as an expression of dependence upon God, is still self-centered in part, at least of its interest: there is something which we hope to gain in our prayer. But the backward-looking act of thanksgiving is quite free from this. In itself it is quite selfless. Thus it is akin to love.”
We must also always look back in thanksgiving. Thanksgiving for the blessings we’ve known in our lives, and remembering that they come on top of the greatest gift that Jesus gave; himself as a sacrifice to atone for our sin. We do that every week but we might let its significance slip by. This service is called the Holy Eucharist, which literally means thanksgiving. The communion part is titled The Great Thanksgiving (e.g. BCP p. 333 & 361). We may tend to come up there with “fix me Jesus” in mind - and we should - but we should also remember it’s primarily about thanksgiving.
I’ll close with another quote from William Temple about those acts as they are foreshadowed by this anointing and Jesus’ words about his burial. This is why we give thanks and what animates our very best memories: “For love is the best thing that there is, and what represents its best moments shares that preciousness.”
My yellow plastic bottle opener is worthless. The Thrift Store couldn’t get a nickel for it. But it is a treasure because it opens memories that are chock full of love.
Next Sunday starts Holy Week, when we take a long hard look at Jesus’ trial and crucifixion, all of which was necessary to bring us to Easter. We must remember. These are the greatest acts of love the world has ever known.