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Homily: Lent V - Extravagant Love

Preached at Immanuel Church-on-the-Hill, Alexandria, VA March 17, 2013 for the Fifth Sunday in Lent.

Fifth Sunday in Lent, Year C (RCL): isaiah 43:16-21; Psalm 126; Philippians 3:4b-14; John 12:1-8.

 Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful, and kindle in us the fire of your love.  Send forth your Spirit and we shall be created, and you shall renew the face of the earth.
 O God, who by the light of the Holy Spirit did instruct the hearts of the faithful, grant that by that same Holy Spirit, we may be truly wise, and ever enjoy its consolations, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

“Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair.”

 Kings were anointed as a consecration of their kingship.  Priests also of their priesthood.

 The dead were also anointed for burial.

 The sick are anointed in a ritual of healing such as we do here today at all services.

 As Jewish pilgrims were in Jerusalem making preparations for the Passover, Jesus arrived in Bethany, where a supper was given in his honor at which Martha served and Lazarus sat with Jesus as a fellow guest.  At this supper Mary, who had knelt at Jesus’ feet in tears, began to anoint his feet with a very expensive perfume, an oil of pure nard, and then wiped his feet with her hair.

  In Mark’s account of what appears to be the same incident, it is an unnamed woman who anoints the head of Jesus.  Readers are left to infer that she anoints Jesus as a king, yet as a king who would soon lying in a tomb, before entering fully into his heavenly kingdom.

 The action of that woman who anoints Jesus, revealing a great moment of sympathetic insight in Mark, is clearly contrasted with the treachery of Judas Iscariot in John’s Gospel.  Mary is pictured as consecrating her Lord for death and burial, though it is his feet over which she pours her perfume; and Judas, one of Jesus’ disciples, who is destined to betray him and so bring about that death, voices the disapproval of her extravagance.

 I think these anointing accounts tells us something about what true discipleship really looks like.  It shows us what it means to be a follower of Jesus.  We come to understand more of what it is to be a believer in Christ.  For in these stories, we see examples of abundant love, the kind of love that Jesus has shown his disciples all along.

 The story is not meant to be about Judas’ greed or his leanings elsewhere, though he does seem to accentuate the abundance shown and how offensive it might seem to some.  But sadly, in what he perceived as wastefulness, Judas revealed he just doesn’t see the true nature of who and what Jesus is.

 No, this story shows us God’s abundant grace, grace upon grace, again and again.

 Here we see Love’s extravagance.  Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, takes the most costly thing she owns and expends it all on Jesus.  This is the kind of Love that need not calculate its cost.  It is something that gives its all and leaves the one regret that there was not still more to give.

 In this story We also see Love’s humility.  It was a sign of honor to anoint a person’s head.  First priests and later kings were anointed by oil which would flow down the head, over the beard and onto the collar.  But in Bethany, while Martha served, and as Lazarus sat at table with his friend, Mary knelt before her Lord.  She would not look so high as to see his head; instead with her costly, fragrant gift, she anoints Jesus’ feet.  I imagine it was far beyond Mary to think she conferred any honor upon Jesus.  Her own humility probably prevented her from thinking herself special enough to do that.  She pours out all of herself in her unconscious display of love.

 Finally, in this story, we see Love’s unselfconsciousness.  Mary begins to wipe Jesus‘ feet with her hair.  In those times in Palestine, no respectable woman would be seen in public, or even polite company, with her hair unbound.  When women married, their hair would be bound up, never again to let flowing tresses be seen in public.  No, flowing hair was a sign of immoral women.

 But there is something else about Love here.  John’s Gospel reads: “The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.”  Often in this Fourth Gospel, many of John’s statements have been thought to have double meanings, one that is immediately on the surface and another which lies beneath.  Throughout the ages, fathers of the Church and scholars have taken this sentence to mean the whole Church is filled with the sweet memory of Mary’s lovely action.   

 We remember Mary’s actions as faith that rings full of all that we know and believe of Christ our Lord, the High Priest of God, who is King of our lives and who goes to the Cross of Calvary to heal us of our sins.

 “Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair.”  This kind of anointing is about love, about honoring, about preparing, about expecting the action to result in understanding somewhere, somehow.  As Mary showed us then, we invite you today to approach this altar to ask for anointing for yourself or prayers for others.

 Come seek the abundant Love of our God, find the never-ending Grace of our Lord and Savior Jesus, and be filled with healing, inspiration and be empowered by the Holy Spirit.  Mary Sulerud’s letter in The Almond Tree last month spoke about the service of healing offered by our Church within the context of Holy Eucharist.  It is a sacramental rite involving the laying on of hands, anointing with holy oil, and prayers by which God’s grace is given for the healing of mind, body and spirit.  This then prepares and enables us to go forth into all the world to preach the Good News as disciples of Christ.