Saturday, March 16, 2013

Broken and Poured Out...

This is in large part a flight of fancy, a narrative. We aren't told, and I cannot speak with authority upon, what Mary, Martha, Lazarus, or anyone else there (save Judas) was thinking, what motivated their words and actions.

But I know how I would feel.

(Many thanks to Kathryn Matthews Huey for her insight into this passage)

John 12:1-8

Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus' feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, "Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?" (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, "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."

This is the Word of the Lord.

There are a couple of accounts in the Gospels where Jesus’ feet are anointed with a costly ointment or perfume, and dried with a woman’s hair. In Luke’s Gospel, the event takes place in a Pharisee’s house, and the woman doing the anointing is called “a sinner.” Today's reading finds Jesus among people who love him. Jesus and the disciples travel to Bethany and have dinner with Lazarus and his sisters, Mary and Martha.

What a strange sight it must have been, even after so many days, seeing Lazarus lying there on that couch, eating with his friend Jesus. Laughing, conversing, listening, engaging the other disciples in discussion... you know, just being Lazarus, same as he had always been Lazarus. Look at him, telling that same old joke he always tells about the peddler and the housewife, laughing at the punchline as if he'd never heard it before!

Everyone else always laughs, not because the joke is still funny, but because you can't be around Lazarus and not laugh, not enjoy life just a little bit more.

Mary stood in the corner, ostensibly to be close at hand in case one of the dinner guests needed anything... but in reality someone could have shattered dinnerware at her feet and she wouldn't have flinched. Martha, busily serving the dinner, once complained to Jesus about having to do all the work while Mary gawked at him, but she no longer minded. Truth be told, Mary would rather have dropped everything and spent all her time clinging to her brother Lazarus, just to experience him being here, just to remind herself that it was real.

Lazarus, their brother, had been dead. Not “dead” as in “spiritually lost,” like the Prodigal Son, no. Really, permanently dead.

I imagine that the three of them, Martha, Mary, and Lazarus, they had known for awhile, to some degree, who Jesus was, and understood, to some extent, why he had come. When Lazarus fell ill, the first thing they did was send for Jesus, to ask him to come and heal his friend.

It still made Mary’s skin go cold to remember that time. Days passed, and no Jesus. Then, no more Lazarus. Just like that, the anchor that kept Martha from working herself into the ground and kept Mary from spinning off like a top, gone. Entombed. Dead.

For four days Mary and Martha had moved around their house like ghosts, like zombies, doing what had to be done, but feeling nothing. At some point, through the fog, Martha told Mary that Jesus was here, and was asking for her. Mary remembered weeping at his feet. She remembered Jesus' tears.

She remembered the stone being rolled away, and everyone recoiling at what they expected to smell.

She remembered Jesus saying the silliest thing she'd ever heard, yelling at an open tomb, “Lazarus, come out!” and even now, her heart pounds in her chest as she relives, in her mind, the impossible, the unbelievable, the overwhelming joy of Lazarus doing just that!

Deep down, she knew what that act had cost Jesus. Even now, the Temple leaders were plotting his death. Such a display of authority over death meant that many Jewish people were now following Jesus. The Temple elite felt their stranglehold on power weakening, and this, coupled with the knowledge that if they lost control, Rome would swoop in and take control by bloody force, meant that Jesus must die, and the sooner the better. Word had it that the Temple leaders were even plotting to kill Lazarus!

And now Jesus was less than two miles from their power base, Jerusalem. As relaxed and joyful as this meal among friends and family was, there was no ignoring the underlying tension, the knowledge that Bethany was the last stop before Jesus entered Jerusalem. She had overheard Lazarus making sure that Jesus knew what it meant, this trip to Jerusalem.

He was signing his death warrant; he was walking right into the jaws of the beast.

Of course he knew. Jesus had known what it would mean the day when he commanded the stone rolled away from Lazarus’ tomb, but he did it anyway. And, Mary thought, because of Jesus, she had Lazarus back.

And yes, perhaps Jesus had always said he would die at the hands of the powerful, but, in Mary’s mind, this miracle that restored her family made this a certainty. Jesus gave up his life to give Lazarus life.

How do you say “thank you” for something like that? Oh, she had said the words, over and over so many times. But she owed him more than thanks. She owed him everything.

The idea grew slowly, budding like a young plant in her mind. A few weeks back, in a daze of grief, she had bought a pound of spikenard to pour on Lazarus' body, but she had moved too slowly, and the tomb had been sealed. It was just one more disappointment in a sea of grief. She had hidden it away in her room, thinking that sooner or later she could sell it and perhaps make some of her money back.

But now she knew what to do, and she wouldn't be too slow this time.

She walked to her room, and returned with the jar of spikenard.

Made from an extract of the roots of a plant which grew only in the Himalayas, spikenard was stunningly expensive – the jar held enough to pay a years' wages to a common laborer. Thousands of dollars, but Mary didn't hesitate. Money meant nothing in the light of the gift that Jesus had given her.

As she entered the dining room, she did something that women never did in public: she let down her hair. In my imagination, this act startles Lazarus, who begins to stand up. Martha happens to be near him, and she sees what Mary has in her hands and instantly understands. With a hand on his shoulder and a reassuring nod, she lets Lazarus know to let Mary be.

I would think that the Twelve were intrigued, but not scandalized. They had seen lots of people do lots of things that were out of the ordinary, and a woman letting down her hair in her own home, even if it was in front of men she wasn’t related to? Not all that big a deal, thanks.

Her face already wet with tears, Mary walked around the table, behind Lazarus and Martha, and knelt behind Jesus’ couch at his feet. She broke open the jar with a snap, and poured the contents on his feet, wiping them dry with her hair.

The weight of the silence in that moment pressed in on her. No one, not even Lazarus or Martha, understood the depth of her gratitude, the compulsion to worship at the feet of the One she knew – she knew – to be the Messiah.

Jesus sat up and looked at her. The fragrance of the spikenard filled every corner of the house, thick enough to cut, as she looked into his eyes – another bold act, something women in that day never did, but there was nothing left of propriety now, was there? Money meant nothing, dignity meant nothing, propriety meant nothing, not in light of the gift that Jesus had given her. Someone was protesting, and loudly. One of the Apostles. It didn't matter, the only thing that mattered was what she saw in Jesus’ eyes. He understood.

Mary washed Jesus’ feet with that perfume in a home that was less than two miles from the gates of Jerusalem. Less than two miles away, a few days later, Jesus will himself wash the feet of his disciples – all of his disciples – even the feet of Judas. Less than two miles away, after the towel is put up and the Passover meal is eaten, Jesus will sweat blood in the Garden of Gethsemane. Less than two miles… two miles from the trial, from the torture, from the scourge, the crown of thorns, the cross. Less than two miles from the cold, dark, silent, airless tomb.

And in Mary’s heart, all of it would be for her.

Honestly, Mary probably didn't understand what Jesus' death would mean for humanity. She didn't have the benefit of being taught any of the six or more doctrines of atonement that Christians fight over, she didn't understand the weight of sin that Jesus would bear on that cross, and she probably had no concept, even with Lazarus sitting right there across the table, that Jesus would conquer death once, for all.

Mary didn't know that the redeeming work of this man, whose feet she knelt at, would permeate every nook and cranny, every time and place of creation like the perfume that still hung in the air of that house. All she knew is that no amount of money, no level of dignity, no expectation of social propriety, nothing was as important as this man, this teacher, this Lord, this Messiah.

Mary had seen what salvation looks like. She had seen salvation as it walked into the sunlight from the open tomb door. She had seen the face of salvation when her trembling fingers loosed the rag over Lazarus' eyes.

Jesus’ ministry began in Cana, lavishly, with wine in wash-pots. It ends here, at a dinner table in Bethany, lavishly, with the fragrance of expensive perfume hanging thick in the air.

This is a picture for us of the love of God, the breathtaking, extravagant, lavish love of God in  Jesus Christ… a love that caused Jesus to empty himself for all creation – all creation – in the same manner that Mary emptied that jar on his feet. Quoting from the Epistle to the Philippians, “…though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death — even death on a cross.”

Not too many more minutes, and Jesus will slip his sandals back on those anointed feet, and stand and walk out the door and down the road into the belly of the beast, through the gates of Jerusalem. Now, we turn with Jesus toward the road to the cross. May our vision be clear and our hope fixed on the one we follow. And may we loose the rags that bind us and blind us and see the face of salvation, and know, like Mary, that nothing – no amount of money, no level of dignity, no expectation of social propriety, nothing is as important as this Lord, this King, this Savior, Jesus Christ.

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