|An Eagle from the Book of Kells for the Feast of St. Patrick|
May I speak to you in the name of one God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen
This reading from John has always made me a little uncomfortable. That’s fine, if the Bible doesn’t make you uncomfortable, you’re not reading it correctly, but this reading troubles me a bit more more than most. John is my favorite Gospel, and one of the other books John wrote, “The Revelation of St. John the Divine” is my favorite book of the Bible. But this particular reading is troubling for a number of reasons, both practical and spiritual. Why does she use her hair? Why do I find myself wanting to side with Judas? Poor Lazarus, he’s died once already and now they want to kill him again. How had the disciples not figured this whole thing out by now? Seriously? A whole pound of ointment? Do you have any idea how much ointment that is?
The hair part is uncomfortable, but mostly, the thing that really chaffs me about this is how quickly I want to agree with Judas before St. John reminds me that he’s a thief and a backstabbing turncoat.
If there’s a fault with John's Gospel, it lies in the same place as it’s beauty: in it’s duality. Judas can’t be right, because he’s a thief. Jesus stands in opposition to the Jews, even though he was one. The light shines out in the darkness. It goes on and on. But things in the real world are often a little more complex than that.
Hamlet, in my mind one of the greatest works of literature ever produced, prompts a similar question. The ghost of Hamlet's father, the dead king, appears to him and tells him he's been murdered by Hamlet's uncle, who has taken the throne. After seeing the ghost of his father, maybe faking madness, and attempting to kill his uncle with no evidence other than a talking specter... Is Hamlet crazy, or is he right? If he’s right, is it out of dumb luck, or was he the sane one all along? People have been debating it for roughly 410 years, and will in all likelihood be debating it another 410. And they’ve never been able to come to a universal conclusion. He dwells in this gray area we will never be able to fully understand or figure out.
And Judas here has a point. He’s making it for the wrong reasons, but he does have a point. That nard could have been sold for money to feed the poor (or line his pockets), and it would have gone a long way. But for Jesus, a man who had devoted nearly all of his ministry to helping the poor, the marginalized, the disenfranchised, the sick, and the outsiders, this was not the time. There is a time, there is a season for everything, including extravagance.
Here, about to die, Jesus looks ahead to the mission of the church, knowing it would have it’s work cut out for it, but also knowing that it would need to recognize, honor, and uphold the holy. He knew that the church would go on into the future, and would continue to serve the poor, but in order for it to do that, he would have to take that short trip from Bethany to Jerusalem. And take that incredibly long trip from Jerusalem to n. Golgotha.
Judas didn’t yet know what was coming, or what he would do, but he knew that he could place his own desires ahead of the mission of God. He knew in his mind that what he wanted, his desire, was more important than God’s plan for redemption in Christ. And perhaps that is why we read this passage during lent. Because many of us want to agree with Judas here, so many of us want to identify with his words. But all of us, like him, supplant our own desires over God’s, and in doing that show exactly why it is that the poor will be always with us.
But Judas isn’t the only player in this scene. He is only the supporting actor to what is happening between Jesus and Mary.
Unlike Judas, Mary knew what was coming. She knew that it was all coming to a head, and that they would kill Jesus, and they would also bring death again to Lazarus. She knew that she and the other disciples were also at risk, being known companions of the one who had caused this trouble. She knew their good run was coming to an end, that this man, the one she believed was the messiah they had been waiting for, the messiah foretold by the prophets, the messiah who would save Israel, this man was going to die, and that would be it; their noble adventure would be over.
She knew he was to die and she gave generously, even extravagantly. But when she gave, aware of his impending death, even believing he was the Christ, she could never have imagined what it was she would find on Sunday morning, just a few days after she anointed him for death and burial.
But “When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, then were we like those who dream.”
We see in the Psalm the hope that seemed so absent in that room, amidst the bickering and mourning. Against the certain knowledge of the brutality coming.
We see hope in that sweet smell of ointment flooding the room, contrasting the stench of Lazarus in the tomb that had slapped them all in the face as the stone was rolled away only days before. And the Lord who wept at the death of his friend prepared for his own death. But those in his midst could not imagine, could barely dream what was to happen.
In our imagination, we can be rich or successful; we can be a hailed as heroes and lionized as laudable; in our imaginations we can be our best selves.
But in our dreams we can do the impossible and we can work magic; we can travel through time and we can visit lost loved ones.
In our dreams we can fly; we are completely and ultimately freed from the restraints of our broken creation.
“When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, then were we like those who dream.”
Mary’s anointing of Christ showed an appropriate gratitude for the work of the Lord, even if she didn’t understand the full implication of what was being done ** just yet. She gave exorbitantly, giving a pound, a full pound of ointment in gratitude, and she didn’t even know, she couldn’t even imagine that the best was yet to come.
In this penitential season, in this time of introspection and self-examination, we might take a look at Judas, with whom we so would like to side this week, and then we might look at ourselves and see how, like Judas, our own desire, how our own selfishness has gotten between us and God. We might look at how we avoid the claim Christ has made on us in order that we may achieve what *we* want. We might look at how our mouths are filled with bitterness at what we do not have or what we want, rather than being filled with laughter, and our tongues with shouts of Joy.
But when we have examined and recognized those human shortcomings, we should remember that while we have sowed with tears, we will reap with songs of joy. At our baptism we are grafted into the body of Christ, and we are joined into the death and resurrection of our Lord, and so with him our sins are washed away, are anointed for burial, and then, on the cross, are destroyed.
And there is our hope.
Our world is broken. Our world is broken. Our world is so, so, very broken. We see it every day, and our own selfishness, our own human nature, like that of Judas who skims from the top as he steals from the poor, our nature ensures that the poor will always be with us. Not only will the poor be with us, but the sick, the infirm, the persecuted, and the broken, those who cheat, and those who scheme. *WE* will always be with us.
But our failings... our failings and our iniquity, our injustice, our selfishness, our shortcoming... all were washed away, destroyed by Christ as he willingly took on that anointing and was broken and pierced on that cross. When he was made to be sin and died, our sin died with him, destroyed once and for all through the love of Christ and the radical grace and forgiveness of God.
And that Christ who was crucified, that messiah who was nailed to the tree and suffered death, that man who was anointed for death by his beloved disciple Mary... that man did the unthinkable, the incomprehensible, the unimaginable. He did something out of a dream. He came back, alive and pouring out a living fountain that flows in the wilderness, a river in the desert, and every living thing honors him.
So let us, even while in the midst of our self-examination, let us be filled with laughter and shout for joy as we emerge with Christ from the shattered and broken wreckage, the crushed rubble of our defeated sin, of our conquered shame, of those gates of hell that could not stand and crumbled before the Son of God. For our Lord, our Messiah, our Christ who was anointed for death *is not dead* and he will be with us today and tomorrow and the day after that... Even to the ending of the age.