Holy week is a time for reflection and meditation. It will include self-examination but this always needs to be less ‘self’ examination and more about seeking to open ourselves to God’s examination, allowing his light to shine into our lives. This always exposes corners, or whole rooms of our lives that we have hidden away – perhaps even places that we have sealed up completely and lived as if they were not there. I heard only last week of a house where a sealed up room had been discovered; hidden away for around 50 years apparently. This uncovering and exposure to the light can be searing, painful, hard. Yet light also dispels the darkness and offers the possibility of clearing things out, cleaning them up. God always shines his light in with this end in view, his light comes to bring cleansing and renewal, not to condemn. As Jesus said to Nicodemjs, ‘ For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order came as the light of the world not to condemn it but in order that the world might be saved through him.’ God always wants to bring grace to bear – truth and grace go together; wrath and mercy meet.
It is my hope and prayer that the reflections we share together this Holy Week might be part of God’s light shining in on us, to expose us and our darkness, yes; but to reveal God’s grace, and the healing balm of the Cross.
Each evening we will look at part of John’s gospel – the gospel readings set for the Eucharist each day. So if you can please read them during the day. This hopefully will mean a clear connection right through the week including Maundy Thursday and Good Friday.
So now let us turn to the story of Mary anointing Jesus in Bethany.
Jesus was a regular visitor to the Bethany home of Mary, Martha and Lazarus. On one visit,recorded by Luke, he accepted Mary as a disciple. He encouraged her to sit at his feet, listen to him and engage in conversation with him. He was acting as her Rabbi. Now rabbis did not have women disciples, but Jesus did. Martha did not appreciate her sister’s action, and her failure to fulfil the role of hospitality giver. Jesus was very clear with Martha, Mary had chosen the right path. He would welcome Martha as a disciple too. (Luke 10.38-42)
Then just a few days before the incident we have read Jesus came to the home after Lazarus had died. Both sisters, Martha first, declare their hope that Jesus would have come earlier to heal their brother. Martha also expresses her belief that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God. Jesus weeps at the sisters sorrow and goes to the tomb and raises Lazarus from the dead. (John 11) The whole event leads to faith for some but increases the opposition and determination to get rid of Jesus amongst others.
Then we come to this meal in Bethany. According to Matthew and Mark this takes place in the home of Simon the leper. Mary is full of thankfulness for all Jesus has done. Her heart it appears is overflowing with love for the one who accepted her fully as a disciple, cared for her and her family, and staggeringly raised her brother from death.
Jesus own words suggest that perhaps she also has an insight into Jesus own forbodings. She had heard his own words about betrayal, suffering, and death, and had perhaps grasped them more clearly than any of the male disciples.
Possibly the intriguing of the chief priests and Pharisees against the raised Lazarus and Jesus had reached the ears of some in Bethany and Mary was concerned about what might lie ahead.
Whatever the mix of thoughts and emotions she decides to do something dramatic and powerful. She takes a flask of expensive ointment and pours it over Jesus’ head (in Mark & Matthew) and feet in John. I am happy to suggest that she was anointing his body ( as he himself put it) completely.
What she does is an outpouring of thankfulness and love. We could even describe it as an expression of worship.
It is extravagant. The pure nard is costly, and she pours it out; not a small amount but the whole lot. It is like taking an entire bottle of an expensive Chanel perfume and pouring it all out in one go. Utter extravagance.
It is expressive. The smell we are told filled the whole house. Poured on Jesus in this way the smell would have been on Jesus for days to come, perhaps the scent was still on him as he carried the cross, though now mixed with sweat and blood. Mary wipes his feet not with a towel but with her own hair.
It is expectant. In some way she is expecting this to speak to Jesus; perhaps to encourage him, to reassure him. We are given no more hint than Jesus own words but somehow there is an expectancy in Mary’s act. She has no idea how he will react to this deeply physical action that expresses her emotions and commitment. Somehow she trusts that he will accept the extravagance and understand what she is seeking to say. She seems unworried by what others might think; this is between her and her Lord.
Then we turn to our Lord himself. The first thing we notice is that he accepts Mary’s offering. He makes no objection. He does not try to stop her or rebuke her. He allows her to pour out the ointment. He allows her to wipe his feet with her hair. He is receptive to her thankfulness and love. He allows himself to be served. It is this acceptance of her love and service that sets the criticism going. In John Judas Iscariot is the one who makes the criticism; but Matthew and Mark make it clear that all the disciples are uncomfortable and troubled by what they see as waste, and perhaps inappropriate action.
But Jesus, instead of criticising Mary, criticises the critics. He criticises them for being utilitarian and lacking understanding. It is John who makes the specific remark about Judas, not Jesus. Jesus however will not tolerate criticism of Mary’s action. He does not deny that there is need to care for the poor and be generous towards them but on this occasion that thinking fails to grasp what is happening. It is simply utilitarian.
Jesus points the gathered people to himself and his out pouring of love in his death; he speaks of his own burial. The words were certainly lost on his hearers and only made sense after his burial had taken place. In Matthew and Mark Jesus adds that this story will be part of the gospel proclamation; it will be a story that lives on. It has indeed done so. In recording those words and in recording the story it is clear that the early disciples did indeed see the whole thing very differently after Jesus’ death and resurrection. No longer are they critical of Mary, rather they accept the criticism of themselves and see it as a story that still speaks.
So we find ourselves having to ask how we respond as hearers and readers now. In doing so I find myself deeply challenged.
What is the overflow, the out pouring of my thankfulness and love to Jesus?
What is the extravagance of my love for The Lord who accepts and welcomes me as a disciple? What expression do I have for the one who has brought me from death into life; whose death was for me?
I can become so restrained. I can fret about what others will think of me in my worship, or my discipleship and giving. I can become caught up with getting it right liturgically, or not wanting to be embarrassed or thought of oddly. Extravagance and expressiveness can be squeezed out by anxiety and conformity.
I wonder too where I, or we, might drift into being utilitarian rather than extravagantly generous.
I long to keep learning from this Mary that I might simply say to The Lord who has given everything for me, ‘With every fibre of my being I love you Lord.’