Fifth Sunday of Lent 2016
For many clergy, and for an increasing number of laity, one of the most powerful moments during Passiontide is at the Chrism Mass at the Cathedral on Maundy Thursday, when the Bishop summons his priests and deacons to meet with him to renew their ordination vows, before leading the congregation through the events of the Passion and then blessing the holy oils. This is the oil used to make the sign of the cross before baptism, the oil used for the anointing of the sick and dying, and the oil of chrism, which represents the anointing of the Holy Spirit at confirmation or ordination.
The use of holy oils on a regular basis at baptism and confirmation and for anointing the sick, has only been revived in more recent years, as it’s seen as an important sign of God’s presence through His Holy Spirit. I had quite a bit a personal experience of being anointed last year, as my journey through two lots of major surgery was punctuated by the strengthening and healing power of God’s Spirit through the anointing of the sick. It’s a very gentle sacrament for a frail body, in contrast to the relative brutality of major surgery and chemotherapy. The body may need both, but the gentle sacrament provides a balance to modern surgery and treatment.
There is a sense of the renewal that comes when dryness gives way to the anointing of the Spirit, like the warmth of spring rain. This is how it needs to be for those who come to be baptised or confirmed, as many will in churches and cathedrals this Easter. The liturgy (or worship) needs to proclaim to them that same wonderful surprising, gracious God who inspired Mary to spend money on precious ointment and pour out her expensive oil over Jesus’ feet in a beautiful, intimate and unrestrained gesture of love and devotion. In John’s Gospel this happens just 6 days before the Passover, when Jesus Himself will be on His knees with a bowl of water, washing the feet of His disciples. But Mary gets there first, in a role that is neither passive nor recipient, but active and generous in its giving.
Martha, Mary and Lazarus are close friends of Jesus. Martha loved Jesus and served Him as best she knew how, looking after His need for food and comfort. Women like Martha, made the ministry of Jesus possible, but Mary was the one who listened most closely to Jesus. She too must have had many demands on her time, but her priority was to listen to her Lord. The result was a deep knowledge of Jesus, a sense of His purpose.
So she chooses her moment, and her sense of timing is crucial. Then she gives Him the most precious thing she has. In a completely over the top gesture of love and devotion, she anoints Jesus with costly perfume. It’s in complete contrast to other, brutal preparations for Jesus’ death. John paints a very physical picture, with details about Mary’s hair and the fragrance of the perfume. It’s as though he wants us to feel the comfort being offered to Jesus. As the practical Judas remarks, it’s a completely senseless waste of money, nearly a year’s wages on one jar of ointment. Not every gesture in life has to be logical or useful, thank goodness. When it comes to the expression of love, nothing is too costly to give to the beloved.
One of the most attractive features of Christian faith is that there is nothing mean or restrained about it. God gives of Himself in the sheer abundance of eternal life. He pours out to overflowing the free gift of salvation. Our response, in return, must always be generous. It must hold nothing back.
So Mary pours out her expensive oil over Jesus’ feet and in a beautiful, intimate and unrestrained gesture, she wipes them with her long hair. She has discerned that He will die and that this dying is His Father’s will. She doesn’t raise an outcry or plan a campaign to stop Him going to Jerusalem. She doesn’t even try to persuade Him. She does nothing to stand in the way of His purpose. Instead, she comes with her gesture of pure devotion. She identifies her will with His own, and anoints Him for burial. Judas, on the other hand, scorns the folly of the cross, the way of lowliness, self-giving and humility. He scorns Mary’s gesture of pure and simple devotion. He is opposed to the mind of Christ. He tries to cost Mary’s act of love. You can never, ever do that. Love cannot be measured by money. The extravagance of love enriches both the giver and the receiver.
Bishop Michael Perham writes of an occasion when he went to anoint a child who was about to be baptised. The oil was brought to him in a little canister or oil stock, but inside was a piece of dried up cotton wool with hardly a hint of oil on it. The Bishop reflected on what a shrivelled up, mean-minded god that dried up cotton wool proclaimed. Conversely, he told of a downtown American Parish where the priest anointed the newly baptised by pouring a copious amount of oil from a large jug over the head of each candidate, then massaging it in, rather like shampoo. For the record, I’m not going to do that, but what kind of over-the top generous, all-embracing God did that gesture proclaim?
The story of the turning of the water into wine and the feeding miracles tell of scarcity being changed into ‘over the top’ abundant provision. The doctrine of the abundance of God is about the endless generosity of God’s grace. The Christian Gospel gives us a lens on to God, which reveals that the heart of God is to be found in endless self-giving. Yet the Church on the ground is all too often dominated by scarcity thinking, convinced that there are not enough resources to do God’s work.
So, as we ponder the strange interweaving of the love of God with both human goodness and human sin, we know that, in each of us, and in our church, both Mary and Judas are to be found. But we know, too, that the love of God in Christ redeems it all. Therefore, in the quietness, let us confront the Judas in each of ourselves who could spoil everything, and allow the Mary in us to find some beautiful thing to do for God. Silence the Judas in us who would think it a waste, who would begrudge the money and the effort.
Passiontide has arrived, with its invitation to let words and silence, ceremony and story, wash over us to anoint and refresh us; dryness gives way to reviving springs, recovering our faith and trust in the one who was anointed for a Kingdom He ruled from a cross, anointed for a grave that could not hold Him, and for a love that proved stronger than death. So let us be like Mary in the total generosity of our response of love and devotion to such an oh so generous God.