Sunday, March 13, 2016

anointing the anointed one

May I speak in the name of Almighty God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: Amen

Our Gospel today is St John the Divine's account of the anointing of the feet of Jesus by a woman as he sat at table. The story is told at this time during Lent because in terms of timing, today being the 5th Sunday of that season, it happens around the same time as the events we will mark next Sunday, our Lord's triumphant entry into Jerusalem; and because, of course, our Lord's words that this is done in order to prepare his body for burial remind us not only that he fully knew the fate that awaited him, but went willingly towards it; and helps focus our attention more fully, if such were needed during Lent, that our Lord's passion and death hangs like a shadow over this whole penitential time.

Versions of this event are recounted in all four of the Gospels; true indeed were our Lord's prophetic words, as recorded by others of the evangelists, that wherever his good news was preached this story would be told in memory of her. However, it is only St John who names her, telling us that it was Mary, the sister of Martha, the woman who was often so busy, and of Lazarus, who had been raised from the dead. As before, Martha is the one who serves, and Mary is the one who worships the Lord. Before she sat at his feet, drinking in all that he has to say, devouring his words of divine wisdom as others eat; on this occasion she brings perfume and anoints his feet. And not just any perfume, but pure nard in an alabaster jar. We are told that it was worth about 300 denarii; and a denarii, as I think all here know, was what a labouring man was paid for a day's work. So, allowing for the Sabbath rest and other holy days when he might not have worked, we are talking about a year's wages – an enormous sum.

Both Mark and Matthew tell us how shocked some of those present were at her extravagance. What a waste, they say; and they grumble at her. But it is only John who tells that among those who criticised her was Judas, one of the 12. It is, of course, shocking that one of the apostles should be a ring-leader among those trying to deny Christ such worshipful attention; but for many I think the shock is lessened by the fact that it is Judas, a man whose later actions have proved such a challenge to even the best of Christians to feel any compassion for, even knowing the dreadful fate those actions will bring down upon his own head.

It is interesting to contrast the actions of Mary with the words of Judas. He claims to be appalled by what he calls a waste, and that the money would have been better spent on the poor. But St John tells us that his reason was only an excuse; it was not that he cared for the poor, but for the lost opportunity to place the money it would have fetched into the purse he carried so that he might use it for his own greedy purposes. In that sense he may be called the patron non-saint of all those who cry out in false-indignation when they see money being spent on building fine churches and making them beautiful places to worship in and give glory to God. A waste of money that could have been better spent, they claim; and often they speak in the name of the poor. But how often, I find myself wondering, do they spend the money that they themselves refuse to give for glorifying God instead to the poor? And in any case, as Jesus tells, there is no conflict in this matter. The poor, who are always with us, are to be looked after; but that does not prevent us from also doing what we can for the body of Christ, the Church he founded.

There is another thought that I have about this anointing. Jesus says that she does so in order to prepare him for burial. Is it possible that she, alone of all that follow him, understand what it is that he has been telling them for so long – that he must go to Jerusalem to suffer and to die? It would be irony indeed if it was the woman, so criticised and misunderstood by so many, even at times by her own sister, was the only one to fully take into her heart what was going on here, that she was at the centre of the drama of salvation itself.

Now consider the actions of Mary. She worships Christ, both by anointing his feet and wiping them with her hair. And we know from previous evidence in the Gospels that this is not something that is done for show, or to draw unwarranted attention to herself. She is truly a lover of Jesus, a woman who by sitting at his feet to hear his good news shows herself to be a prayerful and godly woman. And what of the poor? Well she is, as has already been stated, the sister of Martha and Lazarus; it was to them that Jesus and his apostles went to stay on many an occasion. This, and the fact that she had the albastar jar of nard, shows they were a family of means; and people who were not unwilling to share with others who had less than themselves. And we know that Jesus loved Lazarus; can we really believe that Christ would have been so fond of a family who did not show their love for God by way of showing love for their neighbours also? And would the woman who sat at Jesus feet so often, listening to his teaching, the one Jesus said had chosen the better part, would she not have put that teaching into practice in her life? Would Jesus have declared her choice the better one if if was all listening but never used in any way? I can not think so.

Perhaps that is what we should hope for ourselves during Lent; that our prayers, and fasting, and alms-giving will help us be more like Mary, help us draw closer to Christ, so that we may put all he has taught us better into practice in our lives. It is something, I think, that all should pray for – both for themselves; and for others. Amen

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