living like Mary of Bethany in times of mounting fear...
NOTE; As Lent marches forward - this is Lent V - and our small ensemble prepares for HolyWeek and our interpretation of "A Love Supreme" - here are my written reflections for this coming Sunday. As a rule, I have been not sharing these as I need to "do something new for the Lord" with my writing. And yet, I sense that the times warrant this type of critical reflection in faith. As I wrote to a 92 year old colleague and friend: "The presence of Bonhoeffer and Niebuhr hover just above my shoulders these days as I prepare my message for Sunday." These are grave and challenging times, indeed. Bonne chance mes amis et les bénédictions de Dieu!
On the fifth Sunday in Lent – in anticipation of our pilgrimage to the Cross of our Lord before the start of Holy Week – I am struck by the way Holy Scripture stands in such stark contrast to so much of our contemporary reality:
+ Jesus experiences the overwhelming aroma of perfumed oil poured out upon his feet in excessive abundance: he may be nearing his death, but in the company of the beloved, he rejoices and opens himself to the extravagant grace of love and beauty.
+ The Psalmist, aching for relief, suddenly finds herself singing a song of laughter that is actually hope being poured into her soul from the Lord: so stunning, in fact, is this sacred gift of grace that she exchanges her tears for a smile and trusts that God will make all things new.
+ And the poet Isaiah? He is enraptured with a sense of God’s splendor, announcing that all those who rely upon force, violence, manipulation and control will be extinguished: do not even attempt to recall those former things, he advises his broken-hearted colleagues; for the Lord our God is about to do a new thing. A blessed thing. A beautiful thing.
These readings make clear to those who have eyes to see that “all the contemporary crises of our culture can be reduced to a single crisis called the repression of beauty.” The late John O’Donohue cut to the chase in The Invisible Embrace:
Perhaps for the first time (in decades) we can gain a clear view of how much ugliness we endure and allow. The media generate relentless images of mediocrity and shallowness in their talk-shows, tapestries of smothered language and frenetic gratification. They are becoming the global mirror of our lived experiences… enshrining the ugly as the normal standard and treating the presence of beauty as (either) forgotten or naïve or romantic.
And not just the media: Our fundamental institutions and work habits have become equally coarse, obsessed with the idolatry of the bottom line.Winning at all costs, O’Donohue observes, has become our standard for evaluating worth in this era of arrogance and brutality: “Coarseness,” he writes, “always creates the same relentless chaffing.
It makes every texture it touches raw and rough. And there is an unseemly coarseness to our times which robs grace from the textures of our language, feeling and presence. Such coarseness falsifies and anesthetizes our desire (for that which is good and true.) This is particularly evident in the spread of greed, which to paraphrase Shakespeare “makes hungry where most she satisfies.” Greed is unable to envisage any form of relationship other than absorption or possession.
Small wonder that the appointed lessons sound revolutionary, saturated as they are with an abundance of splendor: they stand in clarifying opposition to the ugliness of contemporary culture and invite us beyond the status quo into the concealed order of creation. The German philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer articulates this skillfully when he writes: “the experience of the beautiful…is the invocation of a potentially whole and holy order of all things.”
+ “We shall rejoice,” sings the Psalmist in accord with the philosopher. “Rejoice so vigorously that those who sow in tears in glad song shall reap. And the one who walks along and weeps shall become the bearer of glad tidings, bringing renewal and healing to the soil and the soul.”
+ For by the grace and gift of God, all things shall become… what? What does Isaiah say? God shall make all things new! Whole and holy – drenched with beauty – revealing in reality what was once only the concealed order of creation. Now, by faith, the Word shall become… flesh.
Today’s gospel involving Jesus, Mary of Bethany and the perfumed oil poured upon his feet is the essential counter-cultural lens through which we have been called to examine and challenge the politics, economics and ethics of this moment in time. This story – in modestly different ways – was deemed so vital by the early church that it was incorporated into each of the four gospels. The differences between how Matthew, Mark and Luke tell it are less useful than the fact that in all of the gospels we’re told that it was a sensual woman who anointed Christ’s feet with the perfumed oil and caressed them with her hair.
Without shame or inhibition, Mary incarnates extravagant love, exposing not only the fears, biases and brutality that were gathering around Jesus and would soon erupt in a downpour of violence; but offering us an alternative to the cruel coarseness that has captured our culture. Mary shows us what authentic discipleship looks like with her embodied creativity and compassion – and we can only reply: beautiful. Mary of Bethany gives shape and form to Christ’s nonviolent alternative to oppression – and does so by relinquishing fear and control so that God’s loving-kindness might be poured into her very flesh.
To my mind, St. Paul must have been thinking of her when he told the early church in Romans 5: by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ and live in grace… that is why we boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope and hope does not disappoint us, because hope is God’s love being poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit. With courage and humility, Mary demonstrates what it looks like to live the love of Jesus in our world.
And no sooner does she pour out the expensive perfumed oil upon the Christ’s feet just like the Spirit has been poured into her heart than Judas explodes in anger and judgment: “Why wasn't this perfume sold and the money given to the poor?" According to the gospel of Mark, Mary’s extravagance was the straw that broke the camel's back for Judas because after her anointing, Judas goes out and betrays his master. My hunch is that Judas mostly only wanted to slow down the Jesus movement from gaining steam because it was such a challenge to the status quo. I don’t believe that he hated Jesus. He just wanted more control. After all, he was a gradualist not a revolutionary. And the passion of Mary’s generosity pushed him over the edge. So before you could count the 10 Commandments, Judas was involved in an “equally opposite, and ugly, emotional reaction to Mary’s love: as one disciple devoted herself to the master, the other betrayed him.” (Mako Fujimura)
Now let’s be clear why Mary’s act was so troubling. Scholars of ancient Israel tell us that “a pint of pure nard was worth about one person's wages for a year. In today's terms, it would therefore be at least $30,000.” Judas’ objection to the anointing was not capricious: he believed it to be an incredible waste. Mako Fujimura, the brilliant visual artist, once put it like this: “if you saw someone pouring expensive perfume on another person, the natural reaction would be to question "why?" Was the object of adoration worth this amount of devotion?
Was the woman crazy, deceived by a charismatic figure or merely foolish?” And if you found out the anointing cost 30 grand…? See where this is going? I submit to you that the ruling wisdom of our generation – our market place ideology, our insistence on bowing down to the bottom line and our fear of being out of control – is not all that far away from the reaction and conclusion of Judas. As a nation, we don’t invest in the education of our children or the nurture of our teachers. For the past 40 years, more and more arts and sports programs have been hacked away from our public school budgets without any significant progress in how we perform in the hard sciences of math and science. We claim we’re doing this to cut costs and get more bang for our buck. But according to the most recent analysis of standardized testing, after all these years of sacrifice and testing, the US still ranks only 35th out of 64 countries in math skills and 27th in science.
We don’t get what it means to use our resources for extravagant, life-giving love. Think how much cash we dump into Super Bowl commercials every year: do you know that each 30 second ad cost $5 million? According to Fortune Magazine that means that beer, car and chip commercials alone cost over $4.5 billion dollars for one football game. No salaries or bonuses for the players – just the ads. Last year, on any given night, there were 47, 725 homeless vets sleeping rough in the United States with another 45 million Americans living under the poverty line.
+ There is NOTHING beautiful, gracious or loving about these facts. And most of the time we don’t even notice because we have repressed beauty for so long that our imaginations have atrophied and our ethics have shriveled.
+ And if you think I exaggerate hearken back to the absurdity and border line obscenity of a recent debate between the Republican front runners for the office of President of the United States. It was an ugly, stupid festival of lies, slander and hatred. And the only thing that made the Democratic debate in Michigan any better given one candidate’s slippery ethics and the other’s shallow shrillness, is that at least important issues were discussed there, but I’m not sure the public good was advanced in any of it.
And so my soul wants to share with you what the British poet, Kathleen Raine, wrote: “When our vision is lost, our consciousness contracts: we forget (our true calling) over and over again until recollection is stirred by some icon of beauty. Then we remember and wonder why we ever forgot.”
It is as if she were channeling the Psalmist who sang that healing and hope came to her as if in a dream: in a vision from beyond, our mouths were filled with laughter and our tongues with glad song. Professor Walter Brueggemann writes that this is always how human beings reconnect with the holy: it comes to us as if we were in a dream. We hear a song on the car radio – and we’re transported to another place – remembering a love greater than ourselves. We’re out walking in the woods and have our breath taken away by the silence as the sun streams through the trees and we recall that we are a part of God’s creation. We go to the movies – or a symphony – or a play or even a museum and all of a sudden we find ourselves weeping for joy or gratitude – or sorrow and remorse – because we have been touched by an icon of beauty and something of the concealed order of creation has been revealed.
Hope breaks through our normal consciousness when we least expect it. That is one of the mysterious ways God comes into our lives. Do you remember how the Bible begins? In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth, the sky, the water, the stars above, the waters below, the animals, the plants and human beings and before the Lord rested, all of this creativity was called… what? GOOD! BEAUTIFUL! THE VERY IMAGE OF THE LORD IN THE WORLD! THE ESSENCE OF GOD MADE FLESH IN FACT! Repeatedly, in Scripture and our lived experiences, God comes to us in unexpected beauty and reminds us: I make all things new, your sins are forgiven, what was lost has been found, pick up your lives and walk.
That is why I have been persuaded that Mary’s act of anointing the Christ’s feet with perfumed oil and swaddling them with her hair is a model for our nonviolent resistance to the ugly, vicious, dumbed-down and brutal culture we have been called to cure. Look, Judas wasn’t a bad man. In a moving reflection on this text, one artist (Mako Fujimura) wrote:
Judas was an extraordinary man with extraordinary gifts; he, along with the other disciples, healed the sick, delivered people from demons, and preached the good news of the Messiah. He gave up everything to follow the Master. And yet, because he confused his limited imagination with the reign of Christ and God’s grace, thinking Jesus had come to give him earthly powers and privileges, his heart ultimately deceived him. When Jesus stepped closer to the cross, Judas realized the way of Jesus was about more than personal power and winning: the cross stripped Jesus, and his disciples, of all earthly privileges and power. And the only earthly possession Christ wore on the cross was the very aroma of the perfume Mary had poured upon him. Judas, you may recall, betrayed the one he loved for 30 pieces of silver; notably less than the worth of Mary's perfume.
In times such as our own, we need MORE creative acts of compassionate extravagance and beauty like Mary’s – not less. And here is one of the reasons why I believe this to be true: earlier this week I was reading the Jewish Forward, an on-line news daily about what’s important in the world of contemporary Judaism, and there was an article about how Jewish historians and holocaust survivors interpret our current state of affairs in the United States. The academics, as you might imagine, were circumspect, making clear distinctions between the rise of fascism in Europe and the enduring potency of American democratic values even in this era of increasing intolerance and vulgarity.
But those who lived through the terror of Kristallnacht – those who survived Treblinka, Auschwitz and Birkenau – those who pledged NEVER AGAIN on their watch – those sober souls sensed in their bones that something diabolic was brewing in the home of the brave and land of the free – and without a bold challenge it would wound us all. After making pilgrimage to Auschwitz back in the early 80s, I vowed to listen carefully to what these sisters and brothers know in the core of their being. After spending time in the backwoods of Mississippi and visiting the shrine to Civil Rights workers murdered by white supremacists, I came to the same conclusion about what we now call the Black Lives Matter movement, too: their hard won wisdom warrants our careful consideration.
It also demands our conscious resistance to the hatred currently being cultivated: our non-violent resistance – our creative and beautiful, intentional, disciplined and compassionate resistance – is like Mary’s anointing the feet of Jesus. You see, we face a choice of being beacons of solidarity – a living, embodied, clear, creative and compassionate community of resistance to the ignorance, rage, ugliness and bigotry – or collaborators with hatred. If we do not celebrate and strengthen beauty, joy and grace with abandon every single week of the year – we join ranks with Judas not Mary. If we give the religious and political barbarians a pass at this moment in history, we wash our hands like Pontius Pilate. That’s what Mary’s legacy says to me: what she did in her extravagance to Jesus is what God has done for us: God brings us forgiveness of sins – God pours hope into our broken hearts – God shares with us the spirit of truth and beauty and empowers us to do likewise in the real world.
Do you know what Jesus said after Mary anointed his feet? The gospel of Mark records it likethis: “After Mary's act of adoration, Jesus said: "Leave her alone. Why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing to me...so I tell you the truth, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her" (Mark 14:6-9). What a commendation!” (Fujimura)
Those words were recorded to give hope to you and me: they tell us that Mary is like us – and we can be like her. Count on this, dear friends, our generosity to the broken, our solidarity with the refugee, our commitment to non-violent resistance through extravagant beauty and disciplined compassion, our culture care, our songs, our Sanctuary, our way of being together in community, our advocacy for the hungry, our camaraderie with our sisters and brothers in the gay/lesbian/trans community and our consistent cleaning of our rivers is going to be misunderstood. And judged – and some will fall away. Every few weeks I get a letter or email telling me God is going to send me to hell because I am leading you astray with Christ’s call to solidarity. Truth!
But we take heart, for Mary’s story is unequivocal: God is for you and for your acts of adoration, resistance and creativity in these broken times. Even when the world does not understand, God rejoices. And that is why what we do here every week is so important: it is small, it is humble, it is often rests on precarious financial grounds that we don’t know how it will survive. But it is so, so beautiful. Tender. Vibrant.
God calls us to live like Mary, not Judas, but the choice is ours. So as you walk about the Sanctuary today and pray on your Lenten pilgrimage to the Cross, hold Christ’s words to Mary in your heart: “she has done a beautiful thing for the Lord… and wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she had one will be told in memory of her.”