We approach the end of Lent, the season to remember our origin and our final goal: the tremendous and transformative Love of God. With one week left before Holy Week, I wonder: How’s it going? How has this season, situated between the twin terrors of pandemic and possible global war, formed your soul? Today the scripture lessons ask us to consider the work of our very lives in the context of Love.
Mary of Bethany anoints the feet of Jesus. This is remarkable on many levels. This is a very public anointing. Her action is lavish, intimate, sensual, and costly. Mary has loved Jesus, her friend and teacher, for a long time. She has sat at his feet as Jesus taught about the Kingdom of God. She knows a lot about death. She has witnessed Jesus raise her brother Lazarus back to life after his death, and she knows that the enemies of Jesus have marked him for death. She has intuited something the other disciples have not yet grasped. In a culture which forbade women even to speak to men outside the family circle, Mary kneels and anoints Jesus’ feet with nard, a perfumed oil worth a year’s wages, wiping them with her hair. She takes a big risk for love’s sake: she is giving all that she has in this moment, without being intimidated by what will happen in the future and without caring who sees.
Most of us prefer to practice our faith and express our love in ways that are more restrained. Beyond matters of decorum, we have practical concerns about tomorrow and next month. Giving it all for the sake of the gospel seems unrealistic for regular people, doesn’t it? We have bills to pay, family and work obligations, and abundant anxiety about looming global threats. The extraordinary outpouring of emotion and resources is as far outside our comfort zone as it was outside Judas’s. (This gospel considers Judas a sinner. I am not convinced that he is any more sinful than Peter, who initially refuses Jesus’ offer to wash his feet and later denies even knowing his closest friend. And remember, it is not a competition!)
I have often found that when I preach about following Jesus, working on a relationship with him, and imitating his example of doing God’s work in the world, people of good will respond with two questions. What is the process? – What is this going to cost us? These are valid questions. We want to know the way to life with God. And still we need to figure out how we will manage to do that.
St Paul may offer some insight into our question of cost as he writes to the people of Philippi in Macedonia. Paul shares his discovery that knowing Jesus that given him the inner strength to let go of his career, his status, and power. Paul allows what he knows about Jesus in his head and his heart to rule his entire life, to change his calendar and his checkbook. He gives up the fantasy of entitlement and embraces the truth of interdependence and service. The result is that Paul discovers that he is joyful, and influential, and wealthy beyond measure in all the ways that matter. He really does consider what he had “lost” to be useless as rubbish. (The word he actually uses means something like animal waste in the street – which probably got the attention of his readers). What is missing from his letter is the “how to” begin this spiritual journey.
The how-to of walking in the Way of Love begins with understanding that it is a process. A spiritual life is an incremental journey which is both costly and valuable beyond imagining. It may begin with an idea that God wants something of/for us. We respond by taking a single step – with a thought, in a prayer, in an intention to seek. We gain strength as we practice. (just like beginning to exercise of doing PT) The journey requires that we leave behind whatever will hold us back from the Love that generated life. Jesus leaves the familiarity of Nazareth and the comfort of Bethany, traveling to Jerusalem knowing he would be murdered there. It didn’t unfold in a week or in 40 days. It took years. It may take many years for us. What is this journey going to cost us? Well, at the same time, nothing (because Jesus has accomplished all the work) and everything (because we will leave everything material at graveside – and hopefully by then we will have come to realize that we do not need much beyond the love of God).
When life goes smoothly, it is easy to deceive ourselves and to think that blessings are of our own doing, that our success and prosperity define us, and that we can manage on our own. It is most often in those circumstances that would be politely labeled as sub-optimal that we are able to perceive more clearly how much we need the blessing and the love of God. To whom do we turn when our world is disintegrating? How can we find hope when confronting the end of the job or the relationship? It is not accidental that the entire gospel of Jesus Christ is a collection of stories about the way in which the enormous love and power of God are revealed in a context of tragedy and loss. The defining moment of our faith, which is the resurrection of Jesus on Easter Day, would be impossible without his suffering and death on Good Friday. It is a package. A big, amazing, painful, ugly, beautiful, holy package. Like our life.
And then we perceive that the Holy One is always right there in the center of it all: pandemic, war, joys, personal loss and tragedy, even death. The cross and Christ are right here with us as we stagger onward.
The Way of Love in Jesus Christ invites us to set our eyes and their hearts on an ultimate truth. The truth is that the God we will come to know is more loving and more powerful than anything we could ask or imagine. We are called to believe in what we know is impossible. We are not St Mary of Bethany or St Paul of Tarsus. Not yet. That is all right. We are each ourselves, beloved kindred of Jesus, saints in-the-making. Let us not approach this path into holiness as a task to be checked off and completed in the next few weeks. We fall off the path and we can begin again. The journey always offers us a new beginning each day. And step by step, day by day, we will be transformed as we proceed into new life.
May it be so.