March 13, 2016, 5th Sunday in Lent YR C
Mary of Bethany anoints the feet of Jesus — John 12:1-8
Here we are in the last “quarter” of the Lenten Season. Next week is Palm Sunday! Very soon we will enter in to all the pageantry, drama, emotion, theology, and faith of the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus. It is very soon. It draws near. And today’s Gospel reading places us right there in the days leading up to the final entrance into Jerusalem.
Drama is building. Jesus has angered many people by healing the on the Sabbath, eating with the unclean and outcast, talking to the Samaritan woman at the well, and the last straw was in the raising of Lazarus from the dead. All of these events are increasing his following. The Powers that Be are threatened. Word is out – “If you see Jesus, have him arrested”. His life is in danger and he knows it. He has avoided Jerusalem, spending time on the outskirts. But it’s almost Passover and Jesus knows it is almost time to return to Jerusalem. Our Lord knew the importance of stopping to spend time with the people he loved. For a brief moment he rests in the loving presence of Martha, Mary, and Lazarus knowing that it would probably be the last time he could relax, laugh, and enjoy the comforts of this earthly life.
John’s Gospel is really one of my favorite books of the Bible. It is rich in symbol and imagery. It has great drama that draws me in and helps me enter the story. Because it was formally written down much later than the other Gospels, there was more time for theological reflection, more time ask the question “Who is Jesus?” John’s Gospel assumes that the audience knows the story so we are taken behind the scenes of Jesus’ earthly ministry, letting us see his eternal origin and divine nature. The words and actions of Jesus and his followers become more like theological statements, rather than reports. Events are reported but John goes beyond them and interprets them in light of faith. Scenes throughout are dripping with symbolism much like the thick fragrant oil that we hear about today.
Perfumed oils were used for all kinds of things: medicine, comfort, or in daily cleansing and toiletries. But John specifically mentions costly Nard. This ointment was imported from the East and was only opened on special occasions like anointing a King or anointing a body for burial. Because it was so fragrant, and so expensive, one would not dream of opening the container unless it really mattered. The amount Mary used – about a pound — was worth 300 denarii or one year’s wages. Stop and think about how much money you make in one year. Would you give this much to another person in such an extravagant, almost wasteful way?
Well, perhaps you can think of a time when “money didn’t matter”. A wedding gift, or a whole WEDDING, a honeymoon, a special anniversary trip, COLLEGE TUITION, a retirement party, a farewell gesture, or a funeral. When we love someone, when someone or something really matters, we spare no expense. We share generously.
Mary spared no expense anointing the feet of one she would call “King”. Anointing a King with oil meant that the King was set apart from others to act on God’s behalf. It was a sign of divine approval, and very much a luxury. Mary’s loving act tells us that Jesus is more than just a good man. He is a King, but not the kind of king we were expecting.
Normally, the head of the King was anointed, but she chose his feet instead. Washing or anointing feet was a model for service. Perhaps this is a foreshadowing of the foot washing at the Last Supper. Perhaps it is Mary acting in humility. In retrospect it seems fitting that she anointed his feet: His were the feet where she sat to listen. His were the feet that walked this earth in the service of others. His were the feet that would soon walk a painful and sorrowful journey to the cross….feet that would be nailed to the wood. She was anointing not just her king, but her Divine servant king.
But oh, man, that was a lot of perfumed oil. This Nard was so potent, couldn’t she have just sprinkled a few drops? The Gospel says that the whole house was filled with the perfume.
Smell is such a powerful sense. It can make a person or memory very present to us. Rudyard Kipling once said, “Smells are surer than sounds or sights to make your heartstrings crack.”
In my first years of marriage, I used to spray my husband’s cologne on his pillow when he was out of town so I could be near him while he was away. Or, back in college when my grandfather died and I inherited his books, how the pages smelled like him for years.
I imagine that the aroma of the event lingered in the house of Martha, Mary and Lazarus for a very long time. Perhaps they could still smell the oily aroma even after his death and remember Mary’s devotion. I’m sure Mary carried the aroma with her for quite a while as oil does not come out of hair easily.
So, why her hair? Why not a towel? Again, I love the drama of John’s Gospel. In that time and place, a woman did not let her hair down in public. It just wasn’t appropriate. Wearing her hear loose and free was a sign of comfort, trust, friendship, or intimacy. Surely she was breaking some boundaries by allowing her locks to flow over his feet while caressing them. We aren’t told what Mary’s intentions were. Was she thanking him for raising her brother, Lazarus? Was she offering comfort? Was she worshipping? Was she recognizing his divinity? Was she actually aware that she was preparing him for burial? All we know is that she acted with complete freedom. “Letting her hair down” was a sign of being completely open to Jesus without restraint, and without worry of judgment. Jesus returned this intimacy by allowing her to do so. He didn’t correct her or make her stop because it was “inappropriate”. He knew her heart and her intentions, just as he knows each of us.
We do know that he interpreted her actions as a preparation for his death. He had been speaking of his impending death for some time but the Twelve didn’t really want to hear it. But whether they liked it or not, their friend, their servant king, was about to endure suffering that no human should ever suffer. A little expensive perfume was nothing compared to the price that Jesus would be paying for us.
I am struck by the conviction and determination of Mary of Bethany. Back in Luke’s Gospel, she is the one who sits at the feet of Jesus, while her sister is busy with the details of serving dinner. Her only desire is to be close to him, listening to him. She is not concerned with making everything perfect, she is not concerned with her own needs. She doesn’t even defend herself when Martha makes a fuss. Jesus is her focus and that’s all that matters. Earlier in John’s Gospel, just before this story, when Lazarus has died, Mary leaves the comfort of her fellow mourners to find comfort in Jesus. She is so comfortable with him, so trusting. Although he knows that Lazarus will live again, Jesus is moved to tears and weeps with her. We too, can find comfort in Jesus, when we are at our lowest. And again in today’s Gospel, Mary is doing what she needs to do to be close to Jesus. She gives her best in spite of the criticism of how wasteful she is being with the oil. Again, she says nothing to defend herself. Her actions speak louder than any words.
So as the end of the Lenten season draws near: How have you been listening to Jesus? How are you asked to “let down your hair” or your guard and love more freely? How are you called to give generously to others? Is there something that you need to do regardless of what others might think? Lent isn’t over yet. It’s not to late to keep listening.