Is there a moment in your life when you knew, when you absolutely knew, deep down in your bones, beyond any shadow of a doubt, that you were loved?
If so, you are blessed. You have been blessed with the most wonderful thing, a most powerful experience, a grace that makes so much more possible.
For Jesus, this is that moment.
“Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.”
Extravagant love. Intimate love. Grace upon grace.
As many of you know, one of our parishioners is at the hospice just a few blocks from here. They’re taking good care of him at the hospice, and his family, his wife and their children, visit every day. He is loved. He also sleeps a lot these days. One day recently when he woke up, his wife and daughter were by his side, and when he saw them, he was disoriented. “Have I died?” he asked. “Am I in heaven?” Now his wife was quick to reassure him that, no, he was at the Maycourt, where he wanted to be, very much alive.
But maybe the correct theological answer to his question would have been yes!
When we experience love, we experience a foretaste of heaven, or as Jesus calls it, eternal life. Love is the enduring essence of life that is eternal, it is the thread that connects this life to the next. When Jesus talks about eternal life, he talks about it as a present reality, as something that begins now, a life that is available to us in the present tense. Eternal life begins now and continues beyond the grave. And the way we experience eternal life here and now is through the experience of being loved. I think our friend was on to something.
Often, especially in hospices, we talk about dying a “good death”. It’s something we’ve had to think about a little more during these pandemic years, especially in the early days of COVID when people were dying in hospitals, unable to have family and friends at their side.
What do you need to die a good death?
We need to know that we are loved.
It’s a strange supper, this gathering in Bethany. These are the people that Jesus loves. Mary and Martha, the sisters, and Lazarus, the one whom Jesus had raised from the dead just a few weeks prior. Jesus’ death warrant has been signed by the authorities, the wanted posters are up. He has just come out of hiding in the wilderness to enter the town of Bethany, on his way to Jerusalem, to be with the people he loves one last time. The disciples are there, including Judas who will betray him. They’re all at table together.
And Mary sees what the others don’t. They think this was is thank you dinner. Mary sees that this is goodbye. That Jesus is headed to his death in Jerusalem. That he is preparing for death. That this is her last chance, her last chance to show Jesus how much she loves him. This is her moment.
And so she loves him, embracing her moment with grace, grace upon grace.
An extravagant amount of the best perfume, pure nard. A shocking intimacy, lying at Jesus’ feet, wiping them with her hair. A humbling vulnerability, exposing herself to ridicule and criticism. She’s all-in, she gives it everything she’s got. Grace upon grace.
When your moment comes, when you get the opportunity, will you embrace it with grace?
Not everyone does. Judas is offended by Mary’s display, gripped by a utilitarian calculus which frowns upon such extravagance, with an unhealthy dose of self-interest and greed added to the mix.
“Why was this perfume not sold and the money given to the poor?”
But Jesus rebukes Judas. “Leave her alone.”
And then, in a line that is often misunderstood, he says,
“You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”
Sometimes we hear this and it sounds like a lack of concern for the poor. But it is actually just the opposite. Jesus is quoting the fifteenth chapter of Deuteronomy, where the full text says “If there is anyone among who is in need, you should open your hand…. Give liberally and be ungrudging.” It is a call to help the poor, a call to acts of grace and generosity, to open our hands and to give generously to anyone who is in need. There is no lack of opportunity – it’s something we can do every day, it can become a way of life, since there will never cease to be those who are poor and in need among us.
But that evening in Bethany, it is Jesus who is in need. That evening in Bethany, it is Mary who embodies the grace that Deuteronomy is calling for. Mary sees what others don’t. Jesus is about to die, and he needs to know that he is loved.
What do you need to die a good death?
We need to know that we are loved.
And so Mary loves him.
Mary takes a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anoints Jesus’ feet, and wipes them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.
Psychologists and neuroscientists will tell us that of all the senses, the one that is most closely connected with memory is our sense of smell. I imagine that John the gospel writer, as he reaches this point in his narrative could still remember the fragrance of the house, even decades later. As he sat at his desk with pen in hand he would have been brought right back to that dinner in Bethany, to the smell of that perfume. “The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.”
I imagine too, that the fragrance of that moment stayed with Jesus for the next six days. The smell of extravagance, the memory of a tender touch, the fragrance of knowing, absolutely knowing, deep down in his bones, beyond any shadow of a doubt, that he was loved. I imagine that he carried that fragrance all the way to the cross, that the fragrance of Mary’s love was something from which he drew strength, that in some way this fragrance helped make possible his own extravagant love offering poured out on the cross on behalf of you and of me. Grace makes so much more possible.
In that house, in that moment of love that Mary gave to Jesus, I think that God works through moments like that. I believe that God was acting in and through Mary to make God’s love known to Jesus in that embodied way that for us humans communicates far more than words alone can do. At his baptism, Jesus heard God’s voice tell him that he was beloved. In Bethany, Jesus felt God’s hands and hair communicating that same love.
And in this entire universe there is nothing more powerful than really knowing that you are loved, and that you are loved by God.
So love one another. It sounds simple, doesn’t it? But too often, we are so measured in the way we love, almost as if we think we could spoil someone by loving them too much, almost as if we’re afraid of draining ourselves by giving too much away.
But there is nothing more powerful than knowing that we are loved, and so we need to find ways to give that to one another, to create those moments for one another. We may have to be extravagant. We may have to be reckless. We may have to be intimate. We may have to be vulnerable. We may have to love with all our heart, all our soul, all our mind and all our strength, with everything we’ve got in order to make our love known and experienced in a way that will never be forgotten. We may have to be like Mary. When your moment comes, embrace it with grace.
That’s the way that God loves us. And God needs us to make it known. Because ours are the only hands God has with which to pour perfume onto the feet of God’s beloved.
Extravagance. Not just grace, but grace upon grace.
Love one another.
Homily Yr C Lent 5. April 3 2022. Trinity
Readings: Isaiah 43.16-21; Ps 126; Phil 3.4b-14; John 12.1-8
Image by KoolShooters (pexel.com)