Isaiah 43: 16 – 21
Philippians 3: 4b – 14
John 12: 1 – 8
Some of you will remember that in the old days this Sunday in Lent went by the title of Passion Sunday. It was on this day that the liturgical colour changed from purple, or Lenten array, to red, but not the fiery red of Pentecost, rather the deep, dark, blood red of Passiontide. At the same time, the focus in the readings changed and they began to point, not to what Jesus was doing, and the miracles he was performing, but what would happen during that last week of his life.
In many ways, while the liturgical colour has not yet changed, and today is no longer called Passion Sunday, the same shift has happened, and the readings invite us to ponder the way of his suffering. They do that by pointing us to the day of [his] burial.
The gospel for today is for me, one of the most tender of passages. It puts us back in the home of Mary, and Martha, and Lazarus. It is this family, you will remember, whom John tells us that Jesus loved.It’s important to remember when thinking about this family in Bethany, that it is about this family that we hear for the first time, in John’s gospel, that Jesus loved someone. Yes, we hear in other places in the gospel of the love of the Father for the Son, and the Son for the Father. And we will hear about the disciple whom Jesus loved. But it is only when we arrive in this home at Bethany, on the occasion of the raising of Lazarus in the previous chapter, do we first hear that Jesus loved another person.
So Jesus is not a stranger when he comes to this home for dinner. He is known and loved, and that love is returned. We say in our Rule of Life, in a somewhat different context, that [only] love can understand what God gives and reveals through Jesus.
I am sure you have had a similar experience with those you love. Wordlessly, with a turn of the head, with a look in the eye, you can read them, and know something profound is happening. Sometimes you can see it, know it, even before they do, and certainly before words can express it. It seems to me that is what is happening here. Wordlessly, with a turn of the head, with the look in the eye, with the simple action of pouring and anointing, Mary knows something, that no one else does, except perhaps Jesus. Mary knows that this is perhaps the last time she will be able to do anything for the one whom she loves.
What she does may be strange and unusual to us. But for a society where walking was the chief means of transportation, what she does was a common, household courtesy. And I should know. Having walked the St. Cuthbert’s Waylast summer, I know that nothing feels better after a long day walking, than to soak your feet in a basin of nice, hot, soapy water. Nothing feels better than to slather those tired, calloused, cracked, blistered feet with a nice cool ointment. Nothing feels better than to sit and rub those sore, aching feet. Nothing feels better than to wrap them in a warm towel, and let them rest. And this is what Mary does for Jesus. What she does is nothing less than what common hospitality demanded. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet.But she also did more. And the more was what love revealed. ‘Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial.’
Today we stand on a threshold between what was, and what will be. And Mary, in this picture of love painted in today’s gospel, is leading the way. In a sense, she has walked through the door ahead of us, showing the way, even beckoning us on.
Like many thresholds that lead to new rooms, the passage is strange and unfamiliar. Perhaps we hesitate. Yet, wordlessly, with a turn of the head, with a look in the eye, Mary moves from one world to the next and invites us to go with her, so that we may all enter with joy upon the contemplation of those mighty acts, whereby [we] have [been] given… life and immortality.
The way that Mary invites us to walk, is not an easy one. It involves towel, basin, and water. It requires us to bend, and to stoop, and to kneel. It involves cross and nails, thorns and spear. It requires us to die. It involves tomb, and grave clothes. It requires us to lay everything aside, even our own lives. But for those who follow, it is life, and peace, and joy.
Something profound has changed today, and our readings reflect that. We are moving inexorably toward Good Friday. Jesus knows that, and by her simple act of hospitality, wordlessly, with a turn of the head, with a look in the eye, we see that Mary knows it as well. Love has revealed something to Mary, and she can no longer turn away. So she bends. She stoops. She kneels. She pours. She wipes. She walks through a door, and crosses a threshold, and invites us to follow.
Unlike the other Evangelists who record versions of this story,John is the only one to name the characters, Lazarus and Martha, Jesus, Mary, and Judas. By doing so, he seems to be offering us a choice, inviting us to choose whom to imitate.
Eventhough we know what happens in the end, like so many before us, we hesitate. But the choice is simple. Like Mary, we can choose to love, to bend, to stoop, to kneel, to follow. Like Judas, we can choose to fear, to complain, to accuse, to clutch, to grasp. ‘Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?’Like so many others, we too are blinded, not by love, but by our pride and self-interest. [Judas] 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.
What is happening today, and indeed has been happening for the last several days in the gospel readings at the daily Eucharist, is that we are being asked, invited, even demanded, to make a choice. We can choose to accept Jesus, not simply as a teacher, and preacher, and prophet, but as the promised Messiah of God. We can choose to follow, like Mary. Or we can choose to turn away, like Judas. We can choose to live with hearts of love that break, and break open, that cause us to bend, and to stoop, and to kneel. Or we can choose to live with hearts of stone, filled with fear, that cause us to complain, to accuse, to clutch, to grasp, and finally to turn away.
Every day for the next two weeks, we have a choice to make. That choice is not easy, for it willchange your life, because a part of you willdie. But the choice is clear. We can choose to live, and love, like Mary. Or, we can choose to live, and fear, like Judas. What will it be? Will you bend and stoop, and kneel? Or will you clutch, and grasp, and turn away? The choice is yours.
Book of Common Prayer, 1979, page 219
John 12: 7
Luke 11: 5
SSJE, Rule of Life, Our Dedication to the Disciple Whom Jesus Loved, chapter 2, page XX
The St. Cuthbert’s Way is a 62 mile, modern pilgrim route from Melrose, Scotland to Holy Island, England connecting various sites associated with St. Cuthbert of Lindisfarne.
John 12: 4
John 12: 7
BCP, 1979, page 270
Mark 14: 1 – 9; Luke 7: 36 – 50
John 12: 5
John 12: 6
John 4: 43 – 54; John 5: 1 – 18; John 5: 19 – 29; John 5: 30 – 47; John 7: 1 -2, 10, 25 – 30; John 7: 37 – 52
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