Lent V: Passion Sunday 3.4.2022 – HR.
Readings: Isaiah 43: 16-21; Ps. 126; Phil. 3: 4b-14; Jn. 12: 1-8
May it be given me to speak in the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. AMEN
“Mary took a pound of costly perfume, anointed Jesus’s feet and wiped them with her hair,” says the writer of John’s gospel to us this morning. I suspect that if first century Palestine did awards for hairdressing, this woman ain’t gonna make no shortlists!
Can I be alone in doing a Stephanie Cole-style recoil here?
“You’re weird”, her alias Mrs Featherstone used to say somewhat ironically to David Jason’s hapless Granville in Open All Hours. And indeed, it’s a fairly understandable reaction. But if you want predictability and the reasonableness of apparent norms as this story reaches its climax, think again. Jesus’ reprimand to Judas, “Leave her alone”, might just as well say, “leave it out!”; “catch yourself on.” Mary chooses the harder, stranger, unfading part as she aligns herself to the totality of love’s endeavour and love’s expense in today’s prophetic foreshowing of the passion narrative.
It’s not going to be easy, going this way, and yet in the poor – “always among you” – you will see me and know what to do and the numberless ways of doing it, says the Lord. But likewise, “You will not always have me”. You will know the way, but you will pay the price for your knowing and choosing. There is a cost to what awaits, Jesus says, and this cost is what Mary recognises; what precipitates her reaction. Here is the immediacy characteristic to a Markan rendering of events. Mary doesn’t occupy herself with an embarrassed busyness or a set of behaviours masking a coping-strategy to fight shy of her feelings. No, she rubs in the prophetic ointment of nard with her hair: a radical action of love performed impulsively, quickly, weirdly, perhaps; reactively, yet with the righteous instinct of secure attachment and as a symbol of the orthodox relationship she is in with her Lord and her friend. A reaction – a self-givenness borne of what has been present from the beginning – not of what is absent or unreal, but rather all of what is tangible and emotive and costly. All that will enable her to accompany her friend on the way – weird to the world – of the cross.
Like the man born blind, the man paralysed on the stretcher, the woman at the well, the court official whose son was healed, the five thousand fed at the lake of Tiberias and the countless unrecorded gospel episodes with their characters of varying shade and hue, unbelief and weirdness, this morning – six days before the Passover – Mary more-than catches a glimpse of the hidden majesty we too are challenged to acknowledge with her at Passiontide.
And she chooses to respond in an oblative act – skin to skin – head to foot – in an epiphany of love. You always have occasion to tend the poor and every other who calls out of need, sickness, sorrow or other adversity, says Jesus to us, “… but you do not always have me.” And with Mary, this is the part we can choose – or not – today also. Do we choose with her to embrace the radicality of this amazing and divine way of love with its exigencies and expenditures? Do we choose to make contact with our friend, our brother, our flesh and bone, our king as he says “yes” to the narrow way of passion by suffering and death? We can acclaim with Mary the new and living way of our own pilgrimage, we can be strengthened by his kenosis presented to us in the sacraments of the New Covenant; we can strive to press onward in their energy to the prize of our universal vocation which is adoption into the family of the Godhead; into the perpetual ordinance of grace offered in the bond of love, outstretched on a tree for us.
Love incarnate, impassioned and crucified, in order that nothing – least of all our souls – may go unfulfilled in the consummation of time and eternity: God’s gift of Godself revealed in Christ Jesus, and made alive to us in all that life gifts us as we interact with church and world by contact with each other, rubbing-in our varying shades of confusion and masking behaviours – the perceived weirdness of other and self that can make us shrink back like Mrs Featherstone – and which yet makes us perfectly fit company to take up the sorrowful road to Calvary. What is our response to him in the bane and blessing – the now of this Passover? And as we in our various ways begin to face the challenge of its cost, how are we to respond to the miracle who pierces souls as surely as binds them up? This crazy, ‘weird’ way whose nature and name is love.
We know acutely – both after the last two years of COVID and the last month of Russian invasion in Ukraine – none of this is easy. And won’t be so. We can’t make contact in the college nor the religious community, let alone the wider church without bristling and recoiling more often than not. And don’t get us started on Holy Week plans – collegial or parochial!
The way of loving is hard and difficult. It isn’t easy; it’s not going to be, and easy isn’t what he promises to us or the way he asks us to go – ever. Instead, here we are called by name; we have the poor among us in friend and stranger, and we are all invited to go up with Mary of Bethany to the table in our Father’s house, whereby we can rub in the ointment of our own sparse love in one communion and fellowship, even as we rub up against each other on the slippery ways of this passing world – skin to skin and nails to wood – that together we may be remembered and strengthened by Love unseen but not unknown; love who calls us by name, to endure the cross upon which love’s self is never spent; the cross upon which the weird is beautified in wondrous embrace – and nailed skin and wood are overwhelmed by the greater contact of mercy and peace: the salvation of God who is coming into the world.
Today, ‘I AM’ does a new thing, prophesies Isaiah. We are invited to rub along; we are called. But will we, in the agony of this Passover, offer our faith and hope with Mary to the greatest of the three – and the best – to the paschal mystery of love?