Year C, Lent 5
At one time I served with a priest who was fairly fastidious (in a good way). Everything was always neat. His desk was organized. He taught me how to officiate- how to lead a service. He was very good at it. He was elegant, but real, polished but faithful. However, almost immediately, I knew that I would not be able to pull that off. When he taught me how to administer ashes on people’s foreheads on Ash Wednesday he would explain in a fairly elaborate way, “First you dip your thumb in the oil soaked cloth, then you dab the ash on the forehead and make the cross. You don’t want too much ash because then it will run down people’s faces and get on their clothes.” This made good sense and I still use this technique today.
Serving with him shaped me in many ways. Despite the fact that I didn’t do things exactly like him, I appreciated the orderliness of it all. I like things to be efficient and organized. I dislike waste. While I love using homemade bread for communion, it always stresses me out a little because the pieces are all different sizes and people get overwhelmed when you give them too big a piece—which means they are chewing for the next 5 minutes. What do you do with the left overs?
I am not proud of my weird little idiosyncrasies. My husband tells me that I am slightly preoccupied with efficiency. So you can imagine that this passage from John rubs me the wrong way. The Gospel begins with: “Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised.” The timing is important because according to John, Jesus died on the Passover. This event occurred six days before his death. Now I suppose having dinner with some friends was a good thing to do in your final days. Yet it seems a little odd to me that he’s just hanging out when he knows that he will die in a few days. Then the really weird thing happens, Mary takes a pound of expensive perfume, anoints Jesus’ feet, and wipes them with her hair.
This was not the generic stuff you get at the drugstore. This was extremely expensive oil. It was worth a year’s wages for your average day laborer. Normally people would anoint someone’s head, but she anointed his feet…with the insanely expensive oil. She poured so much on him that the whole room was filled with the scent. And then, she wiped his feet off with her hair. I realize that this is a lovely image and clearly a sign of deep love and affection, but now she has oil all over her hair. She has wasted even more than she would have had she just used a towel.
It is no wonder why Judas questioned the lavish use of this oil. It’s true that Judas was a thief and his intentions were anything but noble. I imagine there were many people there who also perceived this as a waste. Wouldn’t you? Jesus responded to this accusation with a statement that has been misinterpreted for millennia. “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” People often hear that as justification for not giving to the poor and spending money on things that make us feel good. After all, we can’t help all of the poor people. Jesus was actually quoting Deuteronomy: 11 There will always be some in the land who are poor. That is why I am commanding you to share freely with the poor and with other Israelites in need.
Jesus was not telling them to give up trying to help the poor as they would never fix the problem. He was telling them to continue to care for the poor, because there will always be people in need. He was also reminding them that his time on earth was limited. Never again would someone be able to touch him and anoint him.
While I know all that, it still seems extreme. I just can’t get past the waste and the mess…oil everywhere. That room would have smelled for days. She could have use an appropriate amount of oil, maybe a little dollop on his forehead. She would still have been anointing him. She would still be having this intimate interaction. The rest of the money could have been saved for future ministry or feeding the poor in their midst. That would be a sensible compromise. That was not the way she did it.
A couple of years ago we had a healing service as part of our Lenten program. We decided to use the oils that are blessed by the bishop. We also use them for baptism and blessing the sick. I did not have enough experience with these oils, so I made a bit of a mess. It was dripping down people’s foreheads. I worried that I upset people with all of this oil. The smell filled the space. It was a good smell. I could smell it on my hands for days. Still now, when I smell that oil, I think of the holiness and sacred messiness of that night.
Mary was one of Jesus’ most beloved disciples. Her love knew no limit. When she anointed him, she wasn’t thinking about what was proper or efficient, or liturgically appropriate. She shared that oil much like she shared her love, much like she experienced God’s love. It was abundant and overpowering. Everyone in the room experienced that too and I bet they never forgot that moment when they could see and smell God’s love.
Days later as Mary sat at the foot of the cross, I imagine she could smell that oil on her hair. She remembered that overpowering love. Then when she went back to her home, there it was again, the smell of abundant and reckless love. In her grief and sorrow it gave her strength to be one of the first people who went back to the tomb. It helped her faith.
I love the traditions of the Episcopal Church. Sometimes I worry that they confine us too much. We start to believe that God’s love comes in little hosts and tiny sips of wine. God’s love is gloriously messy and overpowering. We should find ways to return his love in the same way. I am not exactly sure what that looks like. For now it might just look like an open mind. Had I lived in Jesus time and been in the room when Mary spilled all of that perfume, I definitely would have judged her. I would have been so annoyed that I would have missed the majesty of the moment. Let us try not worry about what other people are doing, especially in how they express their faith and their love.
More importantly, try not to censure yourself. If you hear a hymn that makes you want to dance a little, go for it. If you need to sit in your pew and cry the whole service, that is ok too. God speaks to us in different ways and we speak to God in different ways. Try some different things out. Mary took advantage of a moment. Had she not, she would never have been able to show Jesus her love while he was still with her. Think of the times when you lost someone before you had a chance to share your love. Don’t let a moment pass. Don’t let a moment pass to share God’s love and return God’s love.