Psalm 133 is one of a collection called the Psalms of Ascent. These most likely have their original use as songs of praise sung by people on pilgrimage to “high places” for religious festivals. In the case of ancient Judea, a journey to the temple in Jerusalem for holy days would have been such an occasion. This framing of a long journey to a particular place or places for religious ceremony is an ancient practice and they are still popular today. Christians travel to Jerusalem, they walk the Camino de Santiago through France and Spain, travel to Lourdes or to Mexico City for the festivals of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Travel today is generally safer than it was in ancient Israel, but it is never without risk. The risk of leaving comfort and safety and home in hopes of receiving a great blessing. Psalm 133, though short, is filled to overflowing with reflection on the longed-for blessings of pilgrims.
The psalmist uses two images to give us a material handle on what blessing is like: oil and dew. In both cases, it is understood that these holy substances have their origin in God. They flow forth as blessings from God into the world. And, as we can see in their descriptions in the psalm, they do not come from God in small drops or dabs. They come in great flows, running down over top of people and mountains, covering their recipients in blessing.
Oil appears again and again in scripture as an important and, often, holy substance. It was, and still is, a critical part of life for many people around the world. It is used in cooking and baking, for cleaning and maintaining tools, for medicine, and much else. It is a labour-intensive product which makes it expensive, even if it is a necessity. With all of this attached to it, we should not be surprised that oil is also an important ceremonial item in many faiths. We Christians use it often to mark people and objects as having been set aside into new chapters of life or for particular purposes. We sign the cross on the forehead of the newly baptized with holy chrism, that fragrant oil that carries the very scent of salvation in it. We use oil to anoint catechumens—those who come to our churches who seek to be Christians—as a symbol of protection and their unique, important place in our community. We anoint the sick with holy oil, a physical symbol of the prayer of the entire church for that person’s healing. In the case of this psalm, the oil is being used to anoint Aaron, understood as a great blessing. It is not a reserved or quiet blessing, either. Oil is poured out on Aaron such that it runs down his hair and into his beard, quite probably off of him splashing on to the ground. It is an extravagant, overflowing blessing. Reading this psalm and thinking of the extravagance of Aaron’s anointing, it is difficult not to think of the woman who anoints Jesus’s feet with a costly ointment and the misunderstanding amongst the disciples about extravagant blessing. (Mark 14.3-9; Mark 26.6-13; Luke 7.36-50; John 12.1-8)
In a similar way, the dews from the heights of Mount Hermon run down its slopes to pour water into all the lands. Now, we know this is not entirely realistic because Hermon is one mountain among many and it is not the source of all the waterways of the world. But putting that aside, this is a worthy image to be used in this psalm. Mount Hermon is a holy place and the water streaming from it into the world, to water the earth is a symbol of the extravagance of God’s blessing that pilgrims headed to Jerusalem would have understood immediately. Also important is to realize that Hermon’s water does not discriminate into which lands it flows. It is not water only for one people or tribe or nation. The dews of Hermon water all of the land in abundance, just as manna came in abundance like dew from heaven to feed Israel in the desert, just as God intends every abundant blessing for all of creation.
The oil and dew of this psalm are always moving away from their source, outward. They do not look back and do not seek to return, but always to stretch ever farther. Even beyond the human-made borders of the lands in which they started. Oil for anointing is not concerned about the superficial details of whom it anoints—gender, colour, nationality, sexuality, and so on. None of these things matter to the oil. Oil desires only to accomplish its purpose, which is to anoint and be a symbol to the anointed and the world of prayer and grace and God’s abundant blessing. If you have never had oil poured over you, it is a queer sensation. A bit like water running over you in a shower or stream, but heavier, and richer than water. While water washes over us and removes dirt and stains—the waters of baptism and their washing away of sin—oil immediately begins to soak in and permeate your hair and skin. Instead of washing away what is not of us and leaving our true selves clean and fresh, anointing oil adds to us, bringing prayer and blessing as it fills our senses with smooth warmth, fruited tastes, and spicy aromas. It is one way that we might be marked as bearers of God’s blessing.
The psalm also speaks of the beauty of unity among people. Presumably, the same people who benefit from the blessings of oil and water. It is important here, I think, to remember that unity and uniformity are not the same thing. Unity among people is a shared purpose, vision, and direction. To use an analogy, unity is a crew on a ship who all agree on their destination. But the crew’s contributions to that journey will not be uniform. The journey, like the pilgrimages we spoke of earlier, will not be without risk and to have the best chance of a smooth sail, everyone must contribute in the way that they are best able. Some are navigators, some row, some trim sails, some are cooks who keep others fed. Their contributions are not uniform, but the crew is still unified in their purpose. Not all pilgrims journey with the same intent or for the same reasons. Some go to holy places in hopes of healing or revelation, others go to celebrate or mark milestones, but all are unified in their status as pilgrims, their chosen destination, and their hope of receiving God’s blessing along the way.
One of the most interesting features of the way we do our sacraments and blessings, as Anglicans, is the need to have another person present and the need to be touched. In baptism, someone else holds us as we go under the water; in confirmation and ordination the bishop’s hands are placed upon the one being confirmed or ordered; in all of our anointings, the oil is placed on the one being anointed by another. We receive these symbols of blessing and sacrament from another person and, sometimes, from a person we have not known very long. In the case of anointing sick people, they are sometimes receiving this symbol of the fervent prayer of the whole Church from a person they’ve met just a few moments before. But we believe these symbols to be true and the sacraments and blessings in which they participate to be effective and real. They remind us that we belong to the Body of Christ, a collection of people so much broader, wider, and deeper than you or I can properly fathom. And like the oil pouring over Aaron or the dew running down Mount Hermon to water the whole earth, our role is to share these blessings with others, not hoard them up for ourselves—a folly when they are so abundant that neither you nor I nor any of us could contain them—or to serve as gatekeepers over who might receive them.
As well as being sharers of blessing, we are also called to live as pilgrims. To travel this world seeking blessing. And, like the oil and dew in the psalm, blessings travel and appear as God wills them, not as we might have them. They often flow from unlikely, unexpected places and sometimes even from people and places that make us uncomfortable. Places and people that make us question our ideas about blessing because, prior to being anointed or having our thirst quenched by that person’s offering of water, we might have been convinced they had no blessing to offer us.
June is a month with much attached to it. It is the beginning of summer in North America. It is Indigenous history month. It holds Juneteenth, a commemoration of the emancipation of enslaved people in the United States of America. It is Pride month in many parts of the world, recognizing the experiences of 2SLGBTQ+ people. These are all groups of people who have been and often still are told that they are not welcome. Neither are they welcome as pilgrims on the journey together nor are the blessings that they bring seen or wanted. Their presence makes some feel uncomfortable, calling into question many comfortable assumptions. Like the feeling of oil permeating hair and skin, making space for including those who have long been excluded adds something to our communities. It is a queer sensation. A queer blessing.
And yet, this psalm of ascent, this psalm of journey, this psalm of pilgrimage calls out to us with a reminder that it is God’s will and it is best for us when we live in unity. Not uniformity, not a life void of difference, but a shared experience like the crew on that ship where we can journey together toward our destination, each contributing with the gifts that are our blessings to bear. Each anointing the other with the goodness that we carry in our God-given natures.
This psalm calls to us with invitation and possibility. Will we rise to the invitation of this psalm to throw wide the doors and live in unity with all those whose paths we cross? To allow rivers of blessing, like oil and dew, as prayer and succour, to flood the streets of this city? Will we be the dryness of the desert wilderness or the overflowing life of Mount Hermon’s valleys? Will we allow ourselves to be anointed by the oil of the other— the enslaved, the oppressed, the vulnerable, the forgotten, the strange—and receive their queer blessings?
God’s blessing is extravagant enough to soak us from head to toe and run across the floor, to anoint all people and to water all the earth. Will we be pilgrims courageous enough to receive it?
Preached at Holy Trinity Church, Winnipeg.