Homily for Monday in Holy Week, March 17, 2008; delivered by the Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, Grace Church, Amherst, MA

Isaiah 42:1-9 Hebrews 9:11-15
Psalm 36:5-11 John 12:1-11

Kindness in the Night

“One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.
– John 9:25

The night was closing in, and a little circle of people was gathered for the evening meal – Lazarus, whom Jesus had raised from the dead, and his sister Martha, who was serving the meal, and his sister Mary, who took a great quantity of expensive perfume, bathed Jesus’ feet with it, and then dried his feet with her hair.

We hear this story every year on Monday of Holy Week, and I’d like to wonder with you about this gesture of Mary’s. What might it mean? Because John’s Gospel reads rather like a poem, every word and image has multiple meanings, not just one, so we can ponder a number of possibilities.

One meaning is the one that Jesus named: whether Mary knew it or not, when she anointed his feet she was anticipating his approaching death, anointing his feet as a mourner might anoint a dead body. His death was very close; the tension around Jesus was rising to a breaking point. The civil and religious authorities were plotting to take his life and looking for a way to arrest him. Mary seems to have sensed that. She understood the urgency of the moment; she longed to be of use, to offer a gesture of kindness; she felt the same longing that you and I feel when someone we love is near death. No one would speak a word of kindness to Jesus when he hung on the cross; no one would anoint his body after he was crucified; but Mary was there, on that dark night a few days before his death, offering Jesus what she could: the love that naturally flows from us when we know that someone we love is going to die. She anointed the feet that only a few days later would be pierced by nails.

A second meaning of the gesture – it praises extravagance. What a wild thing to do – to pour a pound of costly perfume over someone’s feet and then to wipe it away with one’s hair! It was scandalous, too — respectable Jewish women would never appear in public with their hair unbound. Mary had for the moment abandoned any concern about propriety; she had in a sense forgotten herself. She had relinquished the usual restraint that keeps us watchful about the impression we’re making and what other people think.

I think that’s how the deepest part of ourselves, our soul, wants to love God – with no holding back, with no hand on the hand brake. What would it be like to pray with our whole bodies, not just with our minds – to raise up our hands when we feel full of praise, to throw ourselves on the ground when we need to pray our penitence or sorrow – what would it be like to give our whole selves to God, body, mind and soul, to love God openly, with less caution and reserve? Maybe here in church we like our worship quiet and dignified, but when we pray alone at home, who is to stop us from letting our prayer be completely expressive? There are people who dance their prayer, or weep their prayer, or in other ways use their bodies to let their love for God be physically communicated. That’s an invitation I hear in Mary’s gesture: an invitation as we move into Holy Week to love God more boldly.

And finally, anointing Jesus’ feet brings to mind a familiar gesture of hospitality in that ancient culture: anointing the head of a dinner guest. If Mary had anointed Jesus’ head with oil, her act would have been quite normal, a gracious and traditional way of welcoming a guest. Anointing Jesus’ head would also have recalled how in Old Testament times a prophet anointed the head of the Jewish king [2 Kings 9:1-13, 1 Samuel 10:1]. Anointing Jesus’ head would have meant that she recognized him as the Messiah – literally, the anointed one.

Instead, she anoints his feet, and I can’t help but wonder if this gesture means to say that she does recognize Jesus as king, but as a lowly king, as a humble king, as the Lord of life who rode into Jerusalem on a donkey because he was the King of Peace, not a warrior king. Maybe she anointed his feet because that is the only way to anoint such a king, a king who on another dark night just a few days later would gather his friends for another supper, get up from the table, remove his outer robe, tie a towel around his waist, and wash his disciples’ feet. Perhaps Mary was anointing Jesus as the king who serves, the one who calls us to wash each other’s feet.

And here’s the last thing I’ll say – in that extravagant, loving gesture that combines anointing the dead and anointing a servant king, Mary herself is anointed. She wipes off the perfumed oil with her hair. The oil that she offered Jesus is now on her own head. That to me is a wonderful image of how this works – we give ourselves to Jesus with no holding back and we in turn are blessed. We express our love for him as fully as we can, in our prayer and in our lives, and we discover that we in turn have been anointed, that we in turn have been filled with his life and presence and energy, as if there is nothing we can give him that won’t be given back to us tenfold.

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