A Sermon preached by the Precentor, Canon Anna Macham
Sunday 3 April 2022- 10:30, The Fifth Sunday of Lent (Passion Sunday)
Philippians 3:4b-14 and John 12:1-8
I’ve always tended to think of Mary and Martha, the two friends of Jesus and sisters of Lazarus who host a banquet for Jesus in the reading we’ve just heard, as types. Throughout the history of Christian spirituality, Martha has symbolised the active life of service, while Mary, the disciple who sat and learned at Jesus’ feet, traditionally symbolises the contemplative life of prayer.
Yet in today’s intimate encounter between Mary and Jesus, Mary doesn’t come across as a “type” at all. Like the conversations Jesus had earlier in this Gospel with individuals such as Nicodemus or the Samaritan woman, where he speaks to them and they each came to recognise him for who he really is, Mary here relates to Jesus as an individual. No words are exchanged between them, but this is a moment of personal interaction between her and Jesus where, in an extravagant and prophetic gesture, she pours a very large amount of costly perfume on his feet.
It’s no accident that this rather beautiful Gospel scene is the reading set for today, Passion Sunday. The clue comes at the start when John announces that it’s six days before the Passover. People are coming to Jerusalem to prepare, and Jesus also arrives, for dinner back at Bethany, at “the home of Lazarus.” “Six days” implies that it’s Saturday evening, the end of the Sabbath at the start of this holy week leading to Passover, a week which will be Jesus’ last. That hint of death is confirmed as John reminds us that Lazarus was the one “whom Jesus had raised from the dead” (12:1). Jesus, the giver of life to those in the tomb, is setting out on the journey to his own death and burial.
Today, on Passion Sunday, our observance of Lent shifts up a gear, as we begin to prepare for Palm Sunday in a week’s time, and the events of Holy Week. Today’s Gospel similarly sets the scene for John’s account of the Passion. Jesus is anointed, just as- at the end of this holy week- his crucified body will be anointed (19:39) in preparation for his burial.
Mary’s gesture is extravagant. We’ve already learned, earlier in this Gospel, of her utter devotion to Jesus. And now- during this banquet held to celebrate Jesus’ restoring of Lazarus to life- she comes forward to perform a deed which expresses the utmost possible humility, love and devotion. Mary has a pound of costly perfume made of “pure nard.” The Greek word “pure” here, pistikos, may also mean to believe or have belief; if so, it means “faithful,” or “genuine” in quality, reflecting Mary’s genuine faith and love for Jesus. “Nard” is an oil derived from the root and spike of the nard plant, and the best examples were imported from as far east as India; hence it’s extreme expense. A “pound” is an extraordinarily extravagant amount, the equivalent of a year’s wages, and recalling the vast amount of wine created in Jesus’s first sign at another earlier dinner party at Cana (2:6).
Yet Mary pours all this ointment, not on Jesus’ head, where people wore perfume and kings were anointed, but on his feet, where the preparation of a corpse for burial would start. The shaking loose of her hair is a sign of the deepest grief and distraction in mourning. For behind the joyful festivity of this village meal is the fact that Jesus is on his way to his death. As he follows the way that will lead to the cross, his utter devotion is, for this moment, mirrored in the devotion of Mary, who pours out her precious ointment on his feet. The love of the Saviour is met and mirrored by the love of one he came to save.
The fragrance of the perfume must have filled the whole house. A contemporary rabbinic saying went that “The fragrance of a good perfume spreads from the bedroom to the dining room; so does a good name spread from one end of the world to another.” Assuming this saying was well known, the strong implication is that the fragrance of the gospel will eventually fill the whole world. In her acceptance of Jesus and her lavish response, Mary is presented as a model Christian disciple; the forerunner of the believing Church which will in time to come pour out in all the world its works of love flowing from hearts broken at the place of Jesus’ sacrifice.
But Mary’s outpouring of devotion breaks up the party atmosphere of the dinner. Along with the coming of the light comes shadows, as Mary’s outpouring of devotion provokes the mean spirit of Judas. As well as pushing the plot forward towards the all-important passion narrative, her clear action prompts Judas to complain sanctimoniously, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” Jesus’ reply- “She bought it… for the day of my burial”- is not easy to understand. But it makes explicit what John, the Gospel’s author, has already hinted at: the day is coming soon when Jesus himself will be poured out as a costly and precious sacrifice for the life of the world. “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” Mary has not given this costly gift to the poor but has kept it for an act which is a true expression of love and devotion. Service to the poor will always be needed, but Judas’ criticism misses the point: that genuine devotion to Jesus will lead this way in any case, part of the fragrance of the gospel that is destined to fill the whole world. For Mary, like her sister Martha, acts of service and loving devotion aren’t opposed; they go together.
As the unfolding events of Holy Week will show, the coming of the light creates both light and shadow. The presence of Jesus is the presence of the light. That presence is attested with terrifying intensity at this small scene of the banquet at Bethany- in the bright light of Mary’s love and the dark shadow of Judas’ selfish resentment. The light shines in the darkness. Into the devastation of war-torn cities of Ukraine, into the dark places of our own lives, into the darkness of the cross, this brief episode in the Gospel hints that the dawn light of Easter is coming.
Easter is coming, but it’s not here yet. It can’t be, because our Lord has yet to meet his fate, taking our place; his body has yet to be broken for us; his blood has yet to be shed for the life of the world. The same contrast of light and darkness, faith and unbelief, love and hate that we see between Mary and Judas, the true disciple versus the unfaithful disciple, has yet to be played out in the wider context of the public festival of the Passover and the events of the trial and crucifixion.
In our first reading, Paul writes: “I press on towards the goal.” For him, knowledge of the resurrection can come only through first sharing Christ’s sufferings. The fragrance of Easter can only be discovered through first smelling the stench and blood of the cross. Our journey through Lent and Holy Week will culminate at the foot of the cross. It’s only by walking shoulder to shoulder with these Gospel characters and our companions on this way that this dusty and worn path can become for us nothing less than the way of life and peace.
Our haste to prepare for the coming of Eastertide cannot short-circuit our need to put one foot in front of the other and walk through the pain and suffering and agony of Easter.
The fragrant perfume of Easter not overcome the stench of the blood of the cross.
Walk through the valley of the shadow of death.
Can’t be rushed through in the desire to get to the joy of Easter.