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Sunday, 13 March 2016

Mary of Bethany: the gratuitous, intuitive aroma of the love of Christ

Here my sermon for today's Eucharist at St Vedast-alias-Foster:

As a child my faith was impacted by a musical drama of the life of Christ using scripture drawn from Genesis to Revelation which was called Yesterday Today Forever and was staged in Oxford in the mid-1970s. It was an ambitious production with three complete stage sets, a complicated lighting system, quadraphonic sound, a 50-piece choir, a 12-piece band, dance, narration, a great variety in music, and a back projected film. I was impressed by the integration of the Arts and scripture in a way that I had not seen prior to that point.

Included in the show was a beautiful ballad based on this story of Mary of Bethany anointing Jesus’ feet and wiping them with her hair (John 12. 1 - 8). Called ‘Remember Mary’, the song imagines Mary’s thoughts as she carries out this extravagant gesture:

“I cannot look at your face - I dare not - for I have sinned so much and you know my heart. I want to look at you Jesus, but I have not the power to lift my eyes for I am guilty - oh so guilty. What can I do? For I am lost and yet you care - even for me. So I will pour this ointment upon your feet, dear Lord. The ointment smells so sweet; smells so. sweet; and yet I am a broken creature, I'm only but dust, only dust …”

Jesus responds: “You have done a beautiful thing to me Mary, in pouring this ointment on my body, you have prepared me for burial. Your sins are forgiven, for you have loved much.”

The way in which Mary gives to Jesus in this story could perhaps be summed up in a verse from 2 Corinthians 9: “You should each give, then, as you have decided, not with regret or out of a sense of duty; for God loves the one who gives gladly.” (2 Corinthians 9. 7)

It was her decision to pour ointment over Jesus’ feet and to dry her feet with her hair. No one expected her action – it was not done out of duty - and at least one person criticised her severely for it. It was her entirely her decision, her personal way of giving to Jesus.

Giving in this way involved giving generously from her possessions because the ointment that she used was expensive (imported from countries such as India) and extravagant (half a litre was an enormous amount to use in this way). It also involved giving generously of herself as Jewish women traditionally kept their hair tied up in public and only unloosened their hair in the presence of their husbands. What Mary did in wiping Jesus’ feet with her hair was the ultimate sign of her love for and commitment to Jesus. She did all this, not with regret or out of a sense of duty, but gladly and generously.

In fact, her gift to Jesus is a response to the love that Jesus has shown towards her. She gives because Jesus has first given extravagantly and generously to her. This is the pattern that we see repeated in God’s dealings with human beings throughout scripture and which we see summed up in the most famous verse of scripture, John 3: 16: “God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son …” God so loved that he gave.

Love is the reason for giving, not duty, not regret, but love. In Jesus’ life, death and resurrection God gave everything he had for us. Philippians 2 tells us that, of his own free will, Jesus “gave up all he had, and took the nature of a servant. He became like a human being and appeared in human likeness. He was humble and walked the path of obedience all the way to death – his death on the cross.” This is the extravagant nature of Jesus’ love for us that he would give up all he had in order to all the path of obedience all the way to his death on the cross.

This is what Mary saw in Jesus and why she responded by giving extravagantly and generously to him. God does not need us; yet he created us out of his gratuitous love. Jesus astonished the disciples by giving Mary the highest commendation anyone receives in the pages of the Gospels:

“Leave her alone,” said Jesus. “Why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want. But you will not always have me. She did what she could. She poured perfume on my body beforehand to prepare for my burial. Truly I tell you, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.” (Mark 14:6 -9)’

In reflecting on this story the artist Makoto Fujimura has said that he prays that, ‘there will be a new aroma in the air: an aroma of Mary of Bethany, who in response to Jesus’ tears in John 11 and 12 brought her most precious belonging, her most gratuitous, expensive nard. I pray that in the days to come, this aroma will fill the air whenever the words of Gospel are spoken, that outsiders to faith will sense this extravagant air and feel it, particularly for them. I pray that when our children speak of faith, this gratuitous, intuitive aroma of the love of Christ will be made manifest in their lives.’

Fujimura sees an analogy between the extravagance of Mary’s gesture and the extravagance of art. He prays ‘that artists will no longer have to be on the defensive as was Mary in that aroma-filled room while disciples grumbled that her perfume could have been sold to feed the poor. “What a waste,” they said. What a waste. Is our art wasteful, too?

Art is gratuitous. Art is extravagant. But so is our God.’ And we need to learn a similar extravagance in our response to Jesus.

Oliver O'Donovan writes that, “Generosity means: not staying within the limits which public rationality sets on its approval of benevolence. An extravagant, unmeasured goodness, corresponding to God’s own providential care, defies the logic of public expectation.”

David Dark writes that, “Extravagant kindness of action … amounts to apocalyptic disruption of whatever norms currently crown themselves as “realistic,” “prudent,” or “appropriate.” “These confrontations bring onto the scene an indiscriminate generosity that will often appear supernatural and scandalous as they necessarily go beyond what has appeared previously available or reasonable.” In this way, such actions expand “the sphere of what’s considered historically possible” and “testify to a transcendence in everyday activity with an earth-bound agility that interpenetrates all that appears mundane and insignificant.”

Perhaps, most incredibly of all, what Mary gave was a blessing and help to Jesus. Jesus had been explaining for some time that he was shortly to die but no one believed him or accepted what he was saying. Famously, Peter had told Jesus that he would try to stop that from happening and Jesus rebuked him by saying, “Get behind me, Satan.”

But here Mary anoints Jesus for burial. She understands. She accepts what is going to happen and she prepares Jesus for it. What a blessing that must have been to Jesus that someone understood and supported him in what he was about to do. And in just the same way we bless and encourage God when we give generously of our time, talents and treasure to God.

Judas didn’t understand the love and generosity in Mary’s gifts and this seems to have been because his motives were selfish not loving. In criticising Mary’s gift, he purported to be concerned about the poor but actually wanted to help himself to some of the money. Today it is still easy for us to find reasons not to give. We will all have heard people give a whole string of reasons for not giving – excuses like the money is spent on administration or wasted through corruption rather than going to those that it is meant to benefit. While these are valid issues that need to be addressed, the end result of people’s reasoning is that their money stays in their bank accounts and pockets to be spent on themselves rather than others. As a result, their motivations for not giving can be viewed as selfish, as was the case for Judas too.

Giving to God does not mean ignoring the poor. Jesus said that we show our love for God by loving our neighbours as we love ourselves. He calls us to commit our lives, our time, our talents, our treasure to God for the transforming of our communities and the treasuring of our environment.

So, together with Makoto Fujimura, let us offer a ‘prayer and invitation to encounter the mystery of the Gospel, one which is still filled with the aroma of Mary of Bethany.’ Let us ‘pray that this aroma will invade us too with love and hope.’ May our lives and work ‘witness in some way to this extravagance of the Gospel’; ‘without reduction, in the grace of this encounter, let us continue our work in the extravagance’ of God’s love.

As we do so, out of love rather than duty, we will be following in the footsteps of Mary as she anointed the feet of Jesus and dried his feet with her hair.


11:59 - Psalm 107: Let Us Thank The Lord.

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