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Passionate Love

A guest essay by Mary Graves, senior pastor of Trinity Presbyterian Church in San Carlos, CA. Mary is a nationally acclaimed preacher whose sermons continually draw new people into the church. "I feel like she is speaking just to me," is the comment of many. Mary received her Masters of Divinity from Fuller Theological Seminary and her doctorate in spirituality from San Francisco Theological Seminary. She began her pastorate at Trinity in September 1996.

For Sunday March 21, 2010
Fifth Sunday in Lent

Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year C)

Isaiah 43:16–21

Psalm 126 or 119:9–16

Philippians 3:4b–14

John 12:1–8

           We all know how important it is to have close friends.  Jesus had some very close friends who were not among the twelve disciples.  They were Lazarus and his two sisters, Martha and Mary.  He went to their home for meals and part of his ministry was conducted from their house.

           They were such close friends of Jesus that when Lazarus became seriously ill Martha and Mary sent an urgent message to Jesus telling him, “Come quick!  The one you love is sick.”  They figured that Jesus would come to them right away and by his healing touch make Lazarus well as he had so many others.  But Jesus didn’t come until four days after Lazarus had already died, and the two sisters were deep in grief surrounded by the village mourners.

           When Jesus did show up, both Mary and Martha at different times went to him and said, “You know, if you had been here Lazarus wouldn’t have died.”  And Jesus told them what he told his disciples the first moment he heard that Lazarus was sick: “This situation is going to reveal God’s glory.”

           Soon after Jesus arrived he went to the tomb where Lazarus’ dead body had been placed four days earlier, and he ordered the stone to be rolled back from the entrance.  The sisters protested that they would be overwhelmed by the stench of their brother’s rotting corpse, but Jesus called out in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!”  And the dead Lazarus, still wrapped in grave clothes, came out very much alive.

           The story of the death and resurrection of Lazarus, which is told in John 11, is, as Jesus said, a sign story.  Even though this story is about Lazarus, the story points beyond itself to Jesus’ death and resurrection.

Mary anoints Jesus' feet.

           That is what sign stories do.  They point beyond themselves to tell us deep things about God.  That is what Passover does for the Jews.  It is the re-telling of the story about God’s people being delivered from Egyptian slavery through the slaughter of the Passover lamb.  But the story points beyond that drama to reveal deep things about our covenant God.  Passover is a sign story. 

           Communion is a sign story.  When we stand at the Lord’s table and say, “on the night that Jesus was arrested and betrayed, he took bread and broke it, and he took the cup” — the telling and the enactment of the Last Supper points beyond itself to tell us something important about God’s love for us in Christ. 

           Sign stories.  That is what the gospel from John 12 for this week does.

           It is a simple story: a dinner in the home of Lazarus and Martha and Mary, several of Jesus’ disciples are there.  They are having this dinner party in honor of Jesus, probably to celebrate all that he did for Lazarus and this family.

           It was customary in that time and geographical area when you hosted a dinner to wash the feet of your guests.  Walking was their main mode of travel, walking in sandals or barefoot, and their feet needed cleansing and refreshment.  So, Mary washes Jesus’ feet.

           But John makes it very clear, as does Jesus, that this is more than just a dinner.  What Mary does is more than just wash Jesus’ feet.  What she does is a sign.  The story points beyond itself to reveal something important about God and what God is doing in Jesus Christ.

           We are invited to look closer, beneath the surface of this story.  John does not want us to miss the significance of what is being revealed here about Jesus’ passion.

           Passover is near.  Good Friday is near.  The crucifixion is near.  Jesus already told his disciples that this was coming.  He told them many times, “The Son of Man will be killed by the religious leaders, and raised on the third day.”  But they didn’t understand the significance of what he was telling them.  They brushed it off.  “Don’t be ridiculous!” they said.  “Why would you get yourself killed?  What a waste of a wonderful leader!  No way!  We won’t let that happen to you!”  They didn’t see Jesus’ passion and where God’s love was taking him.

           Like Judas, they just saw on the surface.  He looked at what Mary did and said, “What a ridiculous waste!  Why wasn’t this perfume sold and given to the poor?”  Yet he cared nothing for the poor; he was a thief!  His words had nothing to do with Jesus’ compassion or love.  He only saw the surface meaning of Jesus’ life.

           From here on out the rest of the Gospel of John — chapters 13-21 — are about Jesus’ passion.  This section of John’s Gospel is called The Book of Jesus’ Passion.  It’s not just another tragic story of a great leader getting murdered.  It is about God’s passion; it is about God’s love.  So, John places this important sign story right here, hoping that we won’t miss the significance of what’s coming. 

           John gives us this story as we journey into Holy Week.  Don’t miss the significance of Jesus’ passion.  Look deeply into the story of Mary’s passionate act.  It is a sign story taking us deeper into the reality of God’s passionate love for us in Christ.

           March 7 was Oscar Party night.  The Academy Awards have become a fun opportunity for people like me and my friends to watch all the big stars gather with their beautiful clothes and beautiful bodies.  But underneath it all it is an honoring of the art of film-making.  It is an honoring of the art of deeper seeing that can come to us through movies. 

           When everything is woven together just right — script, sound, costumes, casting, directing, editing, special effects (everything for which they give awards) — through this drama we are given a deeper seeing into the reality of the war in Iraq, or the stark reality of loneliness; we are given a deeper seeing into domestic violence.  That is what a well-done movie can do; the story can immerse you more deeply in reality, take you beyond the surface pieces that make up a movie and touch you in a deep way.

           This very simple drama in John does that; it takes us beyond the surface pieces to the passion of Jesus Christ.  So we are invited to take a closer look.  What’s happening here?

           After all that happened to Lazarus you can imagine how much it meant to this family to have Jesus in their home now and to serve him.  When Mary bent down to do the customary washing of feet she took this outrageously expensive vial of perfume that could have been a family treasure.  She broke the alabaster neck of it and poured it onto Jesus feet and the whole house was filled with the powerful aroma of it. 

           When we are told by Judas that this perfume could have been sold in the market for three hundred denarii that’s a lot of money!  A denarii was a day’s wage in those days and three hundred denarii was a year’s salary.  I have heard that the average salary in San Carlos is between $90,000 and $115,000.  Let’s just say it’s $100,000.  Can you imagine having a special dinner guest over and anointing him in some way with a bottle of $100,000 perfume?

           What Mary did was beyond extravagant!  It was this outpouring of love and gratitude that knew no bounds.  She loved and appreciated Jesus so much, and sometimes when you really love and appreciate somebody you just can’t do enough to let them know it. 

Jesus at Bethany.

           I think it’s important, too, as we look deeply into this story to acknowledge that there are definite sexual overtones to what Mary did.  I’m amazed that the commentaries that I read didn’t bring any attention to this at all.  Maybe they were afraid to.  But this scene is loaded with sexual overtones.

           First of all, Jesus and Mary are both single adults of marriageable age and available.  That automatically creates a dynamic right there.  As you know there are many ways to be sexual with one another that are not about sexual intercourse or pursuing sexual intercourse.  Just a look or a touch that isn’t overtly sexual can be because we are sexual beings and never stop being sexual beings. 

           Also, in Jesus’ day a woman was not allowed to let her hair down in public because there was something about that act that was considered sexual.  Women didn’t wear their hair short; they wore it long.  Once they moved beyond girlhood they always wore their hair tied up or back.  To wear it down in public marked you as an immoral woman, a loose woman.

           When Jesus arrived at the house for dinner Mary went to him with this family treasure in her hand and this deep love in her heart.  Once he was seated she bent down and took his dirty and tired feet into her hands.  She touched them and washed them and massaged them in a way that communicated the esteemed place of honor he held in her heart and in this family.

           Then she broke open the flask and poured this fragrant ointment on his feet.  Everybody in the room immediately was filled and moved by the fragrance of it.  Then she loosened her hair and let it fall to her shoulders.  She bent low to the floor with her face on the ground so that she could wipe Jesus’ feet with the looseness of her long hair.  The scene is charged with passionate love!

           But this scene isn’t really about Mary.  It is pointing beyond itself to Jesus and his passionate love.

           The Bible is not shy about using sexual imagery to describe God’s love relationship with us.  Not at all.  In Scripture God tells Israel, “I am your husband,” and Israel is talked about as God’s faithful or unfaithful wife.  The verb for knowing God in the Old Testament is the same verb as knowing someone sexually.  In the New Testament the Church is talked about as Christ’s bride and Christ as the bridegroom and our relationship is described using the language of a marriage union, sexual intimacy.

           It makes sense.  For what is sexual intercourse at its best but this extreme vulnerability, nakedness, a complete whole-person physical yielding to an intimate union — out of which comes the miracle of new life?  Sexual intimacy and marriage language are the Bible’s favorite metaphors for talking about God’s passionate love relationship with us.

           What Mary does here is a passionate act.  And it points beyond her to the rest of what is going to unfold for Jesus.  He is going to bend down to serve his disciples.  He is going to take the greatest family treasure he owns, his own life, break the neck of the flask of his own life blood because of God’s great love and passion for you and me.

           Jesus is going to make himself completely vulnerable, stripped naked, nailed to a cross.  He will become one with our nakedness and our humility on the cross — and out of that passionate act will come the miracle of new life that will never end.

           His death will look like a complete waste of a good life.  But this story of Mary tells us differently.  Jesus’ journey to the cross is the greatest act of self-giving intimate love ever, and out of it God gives us the miracle of new life.

           Passover is near.  Holy Week is coming.  What will we see?  What will you see?

           Hopefully, through these sign stories we will see the passionate love of God — through the sign story of Lazarus’ death and resurrection — through the sign story of Passover — through the sign story of the Lord’s Supper — through the sign story of Mary’s passionate act of love.

           “The whole house was filled with the fragrance of the ointment.”  May the whole church and your whole journey through Holy Week be filled with the sweet fragrance of God’s passionate love for you.
Image credits: (1) and (2) Resources for Catholic Educators.

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