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For Sunday April 3, 2022

Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year C)


Isaiah 43:16-21
Psalm 126
Phillippians 3:4b-14
John 12:1-8

What does love smell like?  What does hope smell like?  What does resurrection smell like?  On this fifth Sunday of Lent, as we draw closer to Jesus’s final week, and prepare to contemplate his suffering, we’re invited into a story of the senses.  A story of love enacted in fragrance.

All four Gospels tell it — the story of a woman who kneels at Jesus’s feet, breaks an alabaster jar filled with priceless perfume, and dares to love Jesus in the flesh.  Hands to feet.  Hair to skin.  Soaked fingers to soaked toes.  Each writer frames the event differently, to suit his own thematic and theological concerns, but the story at its core remains one of the most sensual, tender, and provocative in the New Testament.

In John’s version, the woman is Mary of Bethany, the sister of Martha and the newly resurrected Lazarus. The two sisters host a dinner party for Jesus, and it’s during the festivities that Mary breaks open her jar, anoints Jesus with spikenard (a scented oil worth a year’s wages) and wipes his feet with her hair.  As the musky fragrance of the oil fills the house, Judas — the disciple who “keeps the common purse,” rebukes Mary for her scandalous generosity: “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?”  But Jesus silences him: “Leave her alone.  She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial.  You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”

Mary's is a layered story that raises thorny questions about poverty, piety, and stewardship.  But it’s also a powerful story of a woman who dares to love extravagantly — even in the face of ridicule and censure — and receives the blessing of Jesus.  Here are three aspects of the story I particularly cherish:

 Painting by Julia Stankova, "Anointing Jesus Feet",

Mary leans into embodiment: What happens between Jesus and Mary in this narrative happens skin to skin. Mary doesn’t need to use words; her yearning, her worship, her gratitude, and her love are enacted wholly through her body.  Just as Jesus later breaks bread with his disciples, Mary breaks open the jar in her hands, allowing its contents to pour freely over Jesus’s feet.  Just as Jesus later washes his disciples’ feet to demonstrate what radical love looks like, Mary expresses her love with her hands and her hair.  Just as Jesus later offers up his broken body for the healing of all, Mary offers up a costly breaking in order to demonstrate her love for her Lord.

What I appreciate most about this story is the way Jesus responds.  Rather than shunning Mary's intimate gesture, Jesus receives her gift into his own body with gratitude, tenderness, pleasure, and blessing.  The holy sacraments here are skin, salt, sweat, and tears.  The instruments of worship are perfumed feet and unbound hair.  This is not an abstract piety of the mind; this is deeply embodied gratitude and worship.

What does this mean for us, I wonder, as we live in cultures that often treat bodies with ambivalence and shame?  Most of the time, I see my own body as something to shrink or tame.  I see its flaws so much more clearly than I see its God-ordained dignity and beauty.  Rarely do I recognize it as a vehicle for worship, love, hospitality, and grace.  But Mary’s gesture reminds me that if I won’t see my own body as God's temple, if I won't embrace it as delightful to its Creator, I won’t be able to embrace anyone else’s.  We are people of the Incarnation, called to break bread, share wine, shed tears, and wash feet.  During this Lenten season, can we learn to see our embodied lives as fully implicated in our lives with God?  Can we move past shame and fear, and offer God our whole selves? 

Mary honors beauty: In Mark’s version of the story, Jesus tells Mary’s critics that her gesture is “a beautiful thing,” worthy of honor and remembrance.  Over and against Judas’s pragmatism, Jesus celebrates the fragrant and the delectable.  In doing so, he gives us permission to savor the good gifts of life on this fragile, fertile earth — the pleasures of our senses, the beauties of nature, and the fruits of human creativity and artistry.

 Painting by Wayne Forte, "Anointing His Feet, #2."

I didn’t grow up in a Christian tradition that put much stock in beauty — liturgical or other. If anything, beauty was viewed with suspicion as frivolous and distracting. "Real" piety resided in sound doctrine and firm faith.  So I'll be honest; Judas’s criticism gives me pause.  Shouldn’t we be sensible?  Spare? Cautious?  Shouldn’t we be guided by our creeds, our strategic plans, our bottom lines?  Aren't we supposed to balance our budgets?  No. Not always.  Not at the expense of the life-giving and the beautiful.

Is Mary’s gift lavish? Yes.  Is it “useless” in the practical-minded economy Judas brings to the table?  Yes. Is it efficient, orderly, or logical?  No.  And yet Jesus cherishes and blesses it.  As writer Mary Gordon puts it: “In the moment of the washing of the feet, Jesus insists that beauty matters: that the aesthetic can take precedence over the moral.”  Think about it this way: in times of peril, pain, or trouble in your own life, what has comforted you the most?  What has carried you through?  The platitudes of a pragmatist?  Or the lavish and “useless” gestures of someone who loves you?

Mary recognizes the importance of meeting the world’s brokenness, cynicism, and pain with priceless, generous beauty.  Even as death looms, she chooses to share what is heartbreakingly fragile and fleeting: a fragrance.  A sensory gift.  An experience of beauty.  Her perfume is her protest.  Her scented hands are her declaration.  In anointing Jesus in beauty, she declares that the stench of death will not have the last word in our lives — the last word will belong to the sweet and sacred fragrance of love.

Mary treasures the moment: Jesus responds to Judas’s criticism with a comment that might sound callous: “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”  What is Jesus saying?  That the poor don’t matter?  That we should accept poverty as inevitable and unfixable?  I don’t think so.  In fact, many commentators argue that Jesus’s reference here is to Deuteronomy 15:11, whose message about poverty and generosity is crystal clear: “There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded.”  In other words, the call to care for the poor is constant.  It never ceases.  In fact, if we are called to love Jesus without limit or calculation when he is with us, then we are called to the same limitless and uncalculated extravagance when the poor are with us.  Which is always.

 Painting by Daniel Gerhartz, "Forgiveness."

So what is it about Mary’s extravagance that merits Jesus’s blessing, and what is it about Judas’s criticism that earns Jesus’s rebuke?  Mary responds to the call of love in the moment.  In the now.  Knowing what Jesus is about to face; knowing that he’s in urgent need of companionship, comfort, and solace; knowing that the time is short to express all the gratitude and affection she carries in her heart, Mary acts. Given the choice between an abstracted need (the poor “out there”) and the concrete need that presents itself at her own doorstep, around her own dinner table, Mary chooses the here and now.  She loves the body and soul who is placed in her presence.  In doing so, she ends up caring for the one who is denied room at the inn — even to be born.  For the one who has no place to lay his head during his years of ministry.  For the one whose crucified body is laid in a borrowed tomb.  In other words, it is the poor Mary serves when she serves Jesus.  Just as it is always Jesus we serve when we love without reservation what God places in front of us, here and now.

Lutheran minister Reagan Humber puts it this way: “What won’t always be with us is the opportunity to see God in whatever and whomever stands in front of us right now.  The kingdom of God is here.  Right now is the moment when God can break our hearts.  The love of God is the grace of now.”

What does love smell like?  What does hope smell like?  What does resurrection smell like?  They smell like beauty broken and spilled out for the sake of love.

So much is given to us in this Gospel story.  What will we do with it all as we set our faces towards Jerusalem?  Will we choose the measured risk or the extravagant gesture?  Will we celebrate  "useless" gifts as sacred to God, or will we hold our hearts back in judgment and cynicism?  What will guide us as we contemplate the cross — the theological platitude, or the fragrance of Christ?  That very important jar we're hanging onto at all costs — when and for whom will we break it?

The time is short.  The cross awaits.  Pain is coming.  For this moment, though, we have Jesus.  What will we do while we have him with us?

Debie Thomas:

Image credits: (1–3)

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