Almighty God, the breeze of your love and grace is ever blowing; may our hearts be lifted by that breeze, and may it inspire these words and those who hear them. Amen
One of my favorite Christmas stories is O. Henry’s story, The Gift of the Magi. You probably remember how it goes: The characters are a young couple…deeply in love, and very poor. Christmas is coming and each of them wants very badly to give a gift to the one they love…something special, something that will fulfill the other’s deepest longings. Of course, this couple doesn’t have much money, but they do have two things of inestimable value: her long, thick luxurious hair which falls below her knees, and his gold pocket watch, inherited from his father and grandfather. You know what happens—she decides to sell her hair to buy him a beautiful chain for his watch, only to find out that he has sold his watch to buy her combs to hold her long, thick hair.
It’s a story rich in irony, with a bit of pathos thrown in; it’s a story too that might have us shaking our heads over the impetuousness of young love, the foolishness of their choices, the wastefulness of it all. But you know, as foolish as those choices might have been, they also represent a generosity of spirit, an extravagance of selfless love and the kind of beyond measure, and an example of truly sacrificial giving. In their pouring out of love for the other, each demonstrated a willingness to give up the only thing of value they possessed—each made the sacrifice for the other. It’s a great story.
You might be wondering why I am telling a Christmas story during Lent. No I haven’t lost track of time, or taken leave of my senses. I’m telling this story because I think it shares a theme with today’s gospel. Like the young couple in O. Henry’s story, Mary of Bethany, moved by her love for Jesus, does something that on the surface seems senseless and wasteful, but that in reality embodies the generosity of spirit and willingness to give sacrificially in service of others modeled for us by Jesus.
Today’s gospel finds Jesus in Bethany, the village that is home to Lazarus and his sisters, Mary and Martha. Jesus has, of course, been here before -- the last time he visited he raised Lazarus from the dead, an action that not gave further evidence of his power and authority among his followers but also helped to set the stage for his upcoming arrest, stoking the ire of the authorities who feared that power and authority. Now, six days before the Passover and about to go on to Jerusalem, Jesus returns to Lazarus’ home, where Lazarus, Martha, and Mary host a dinner for Jesus and the disciples who are with him.
Dining customs in the first century Mediterranean were different from what we are accustomed to. Instead of sitting upright with feet firmly planted on the floor, people reclined at the table. One unintended consequence of this was that one’s feet might be in close proximity to the head of others reclining near them. And because streets and roads were dusty, and dirty, and often reeked of raw sewage, washing the feet of guests when they arrived was more than just a gesture of hospitality—it was a necessity, and it was a job generally reserved for a servant, not a host. So what comes next was extraordinary on a number of levels.
Mary, perhaps not satisfied by the mere washing of Jesus’ feet, knelt and anointed them, using a pound of expensive perfume oil, made from nard, lavishing the oil onto his feet, filling the air with the sweet scent of the precious oil, and then wiping his feet with her hair. With this one simple act, Mary violated all sorts of social boundaries. She used expensive oil—worth a year’s wages by some accounting—an extravagant waste by most standards. She let down her hair in public—a social taboo for Jewish women. And she anointed not Jesus’ head—the part of the body we might expect to be anointed—but his feet. Why would she do such a thing?
Anointing was known in two contexts in Mary’s world. It was an act often associated with royalty—oil was poured on the heads of kings, an anointing that signified their authority. The term “christos” in Greek, or “messiah” in Hebrew connotes one who has been anointed, set apart for some special purpose. Anointing was also something done to bodies after death, part of the ritual done to prepare them for burial and an act carried out with the respect.
In a way, Mary’s anointing of Jesus’ feet reflects both these practices. Mary had already implicitly signified that she recognized Jesus as the Messiah when he came to raise Lazarus. Her anointing of his feet reinforces that recognition. But even more than that, in anointing Jesus’ feet, Mary symbolically foreshadows the anointing of his body that would normally take place before it would be placed in the tomb—an anointing that the body of Jesus actually never receives. Mary is pouring out her love for
Jesus now because on some level she realizes that he will not be with her later.
Mary symbolically pours out her love for Jesus when she pours the precious oil on his feet--an extravagant gesture, and one that some like Judas would say was wasteful. Wouldn’t it have been better to use the money to help the poor? Or to save the oil for a more appropriate occasion? But Mary’s action, just like the gifts of the young couple in O. Henry’s story, is extraordinary not because of its monetary value, but because it signifies a willingness to make a sacrifice that on the surface seems beyond reason—a sacrifice motivated by pure love.
In anointing Jesus’ feet Mary also anticipates what Jesus will do on the night before he is arrested, when he humbly kneels to wash the feet of his disciples, and then commands the twelve that they should do likewise. Jesus’ act of humble servanthood in the washing of his disciples’ feet, like Mary’s act of anointing his feet, takes place in the shadow of the certainty of his death—a death that will be the ultimate sacrifice. Jesus’ act, like Mary’s, is an outpouring of selfless love, an expression of love’s triumph over death. And this act of selfless love, of humble servanthood, of sacrificial giving becomes the model for the disciples to follow.
Perhaps it is here that Mary’s act takes on its greatest significance. Mary is not one of the “official disciples”—she is a female, after all. She appears only twice in this gospel—we won’t meet her again after Jesus leaves Bethany and goes on to Jerusalem. But in this single act of anointing Jesus’ feet, Mary embodies what discipleship means in John’s gospel. She recognizes Jesus for who he is and she kneels in service. She acts spontaneously, without asking questions, without the encouragement that the other disciples will receive, and she gives with thought of what it might cost her. Mary loves selflessly, and she acts generously, extravagantly, sacrificially out of that love. She personifies the values Jesus has preached and taught and lived.
As we approach this final week of Lent, we might do well to ask ourselves how we might be called to be more like Mary. Are we called to love more extravagantly? To act more generously? To give more sacrificially? Can we put aside our own self-interest, our petty squabbles, our selfish wants and instead live a life that is centered on loving God and on acting on that love in our daily lives? And if we were to do so, what might it mean for our families, for ourselves, for our parish, for the world?