God does a new thing. Springs burst forth in the desert, and the world's strongest military power is paralyzed.
Psalm 126 (UMH 847).
Response 1 with Tone 3 in F major or Response 2 with Tone 2 in D minor.
No accomplishments or faults of the past compare to knowing Christ Jesus our Lord in the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings.
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Mary anoints Jesus at Bethany. Judas protests, using Jesus' own teaching about caring for the poor against him. Jesus rebukes Judas with words pointing to the uniqueness of his presence and of this occasion that called forth the very response Mary had made.
Liturgical calendar: In the churches that are preparing persons for baptism at Easter, this is another Sunday of "scrutinizes." Today may be an excellent day for the "examination of conscience" as part of worship. See Come to the Waters, pages 106-107 for context and pages 117-119 for several suggested resources.
March is Women's History Month. For resources, see the COSROW website and additional resources on the GBOD worship website.
Coming in April
Native American Ministries Sunday: April 14. Consider inviting a Native American United Methodist elder or deacon to help you celebrate the newly developed Native American Holy Communion service used at General Conference 2012.
Festival of God's Creation:: April 21 GBOD resources for this and Earth Day are here.
World Malaria Day: April 25
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Atmospherics: How Do I Join What God's Doing, Here and Now?
Throughout Lent in Year C, the lectionary points us to practices that prepare us to live out the baptismal covenant more fully and faithfully. This week's practice might be called something like "Practicing the Presence in the Present" or "How Do I Join What God's Doing, Here and Now?" All three texts call for the necessity of moving beyond some past expectations and experiences if we are to discern and respond appropriately to what God is up to here and now.
That means we have to focus on cultivating a living, active sense of the Presence above all.
To cultivate that fully requires more than "present awareness." In other words, "Practicing the Presence in the Present" isn't merely a synonym for "living in the moment." Indeed, unless we have suffered neurological damage that prevents us experiencing or remembering anything other than the present, our actual experience of the present as the present is always connected in some way to our experience of the past as past and the future as future. This is a good thing! It's what enables us to learn, to improve our practice, and to grow.
So while a theme like "Practicing the Presence in the Present" may tempt you as worship planners to "create a worship experience" for today that makes a nearly complete break with your worshiping community's traditions in worship, keep in mind that doing so would really be more like simulating "ecclesial amnesia" than leading your worshiping community to be the church, memory fully intact, hearing its call to be especially attentive to what Jesus Christ, "the same yesterday, today and forever," is doing in our midst now.
So stay close to the basic patterns of worship for today. And let elements within this pattern "riff" on it more than entirely break from it to help underscore the theme.
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Isaiah is surprising. Philippians is inspirational. John is confrontational.
All three are there to "shake us out" of our sense of "things as usual under the powers that be." Shaking us up like this is part of what it takes to help us to "reject the evil powers of this world" our first baptismal vow requires of us. It may also be what it takes to get us up and moving to join what God is up to in the here and now, which very often overturns much that seems usual, proper or even righteous.
Which does your congregation need most today?
Isaiah: Bringing Life and Pathways to… Nowhere
Where is God in mission?
In Isaiah the voice of God cries out to exiles in Babylon for whom exile has become "normal." That means that by now, nothing in their expectations about the world or their place in it could prepare them for what God was about to do. In their framework, things such as "highways in the wilderness" and "rivers in the desert" were impossibilities, if not complete wastes of time and effort. No one in their right mind would build a road from nowhere to nowhere! And why would anyone divert a river through a desert, since it would just dry out, right? Yet, God says these very things that are about to happen -- highways and rivers across a desert! Their "new normal" is not God's intention for them.
In Christ, we have the fulfillment of God's "new thing" for all humanity. In Christ, God has built roads to our nowheres and has reached into the desert places of the world to offer the water of eternal life. God values us so much that no nowhere is too far for God to go to reach us, no desert too parched to give us drink, and no army on the planet will stop God's love.
Where is God in mission? Often exactly among those places and people others consider "nowhere"? How do we join that mission? In part, by going there!
In 18th-century England, one "nowhere" for a growing number of people was the debtor's prison. As the industrial revolution continued with few restraints or constraints, more and more families found themselves trapped in a cycle of debt and debtors prison. It was horribly discouraging and often self-perpetuating. Get caught once, and many found themselves trapped for years to come and treated as common criminals with all the baggage attached to that, and nearly no one to listen to or advocate for them. It was a desert, a nowhere, with no roads leading out.
Enter the Methodists. Charles and John began visiting prisons, including debtors prisons, in their Holy Club days at Oxford in the 1720s and 1730s, and started commending this practice to all members of the growing Methodist Societies. The results of so many Methodists actually visiting both prisons, and particularly debtors prisons, was not only that those with no one to listen had listening ears, and even advocates, but that they soon started having support not only to stay out of debtors prisons, and ultimately to lead England to abolish debtors prisons altogether.
The Spirit opened the eyes of the Wesleys, and then the Methodists, and then others in English society to a nowhere where God was working to bring deliverance. And that deliverance came.
As you discuss this reading in your worship planning team, ask yourselves where the "nowheres" are where you are. Certainly, prisons and the whole process of prisoner re-entry remain among them in U.S. culture. But where are there others? Who is already going there? How might you connect with them to encourage others on this journey to a "nowhere" that is becoming one of God's "somewheres" or "Yes-wheres"?
What is it about "normal" where you are that makes it hard to see such a nowhere as God's somewhere? How can you "retune" your discernment as individuals and as a community of faith so that God's promise for normal -- highways to nowhere, rivers in deserts and armies overcome by the power of love -- starts to become a bigger part of normal where you are, too?
Visuals: the biblical images and local analogs you come up with in the discussions in your worship planning team. Soundscape: whatever sounds like "nothing" and "no way" and "nowhere" where you are, followed by whatever sounds like what fills all that "no" with "yes."
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Philippians: The Past as Fertilizer and the Sufferings and Resurrections of Christ as Energy Source for God's Mission Now
In Philippians, Paul reminds the congregation of what really binds them together and relativizes all conflicts they may experience either inside the congregation or in their life in the world. "I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings" (Philippians 3:10). All else, all past accomplishments and failures are, as the KJV accurately translated the Greek word "skubala," "dung."
Now let's understand what that does and doesn't mean. Dung is not worthless if you're a farmer, then or now. Dung is what remains of food. It can no longer nourish you directly, but it can and does nourish the earth to generate more food for humans and animals alike.
As such, dung is not an energy source. It is a catalyst. The energy sources for plant life are sunlight and water.
In like fashion, Paul points out we can't "run" on our past -- whether its accomplishments or its failures. The past can help catalyze our growth in the present. But that growth itself comes as we actually tap into the true, ongoing source of our life: the sufferings and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And these we connect with just as a plant connects with water and sunlight. Plants don't "think" about water and sunlight. They are instead DNA engines that take in water and sunlight and other minerals (some of which are enhanced by dung) and convert them into cells and ultimately into fruit that feeds others and reproduces itself.
Thus when Paul speaks of knowing Christ in his sufferings and in the power of his resurrection, he is not speaking simply of "getting it" that Jesus did these things for us. Instead, he is speaking of us encountering these things ourselves, in real time, in our own lives, suffering as Christ suffered, and experiencing God raising us as Christ was raised.
We join what God's up to then in part precisely as we head into places of suffering ourselves in every way we can. And we shield ourselves from this true energy source of our lives in Christ when we evade the call to "go there."
It's important to know the difference between dung and actual energy sources. Often, we confuse the two, or even replace the one for the other.
So in your worship planning team, have a conversation about the dung and the energy sources you know in your lives and in the life of your worshiping community. Keep the two straight. List them on separate sheets of paper or in separate documents.
You might find your dung list is much longer than your energy sources list. If you do, try not limiting yourselves just to your own stories and stories of folks in your congregation. Spread the net wider. Bring in every story you know about that shows people experiencing the Christ in his sufferings and in the power of the resurrection -- locally, globally, and historically. Remember, the body of Christ includes you here and now, but isn't by any means only you here and now!
When you've gathered a good number of these stories and examples, create an immersive experience as a response to the reading that helps your worshiping community deeply link this text with its own and other Christian stories and testimonies. Consider alternating between telling a "sufferings of Christ" and a resurrection story (very briefly -- perhaps as video clips or a one- or two-sentence statement by someone in the congregation) interweaving a congregational response, "We want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings," between them. Consider what music or soundscape (if any) should happen behind and under the tellings, images and responses. ("I Want Jesus to Walk with Me" might be an appropriate tune, for example).
For this to come off well, to establish and keep a strong sense of flow that makes this an immersive experience rather than a disjointed one, you will need to rehearse it with all speakers, musicians, and tech staff before you do it "live" in worship. So plan on that! You and your worshiping community will be glad you did!
But don't stop with this kind of experience as a response to the text (or maybe even as "the sermon" for today). Keep eliciting these stories through the week. Encourage folks to share them via Twitter or on your church's Facebook page, website, or blog. Continue to help people give testimony to ways in which actually joining God's mission among the suffering and as those who suffer the sufferings of Christ also helps them experience the power of Christ in his resurrection. Then watch to see what the Spirit does among you with all of this mutual inspiration!
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John: Confronting Our "Holy Excuses"
At some point, we may all have to admit we're Judas -- making "holy excuses" for not joining what God's actually up to here and now.
Mary, a close friend of Jesus, has anointed Jesus with the contents of a large alabaster jar of perfume. Did Mary know that Jesus was about to be killed? Is that why she anointed him? We are not told. This may simply have been more of a spontaneous expression of love for Jesus in gratitude for him raising Lazarus from the dead (in chapter 11). She wanted to bless him. And this was a way she could do that.
But Judas would have none of that. He not only criticized it, he condemned it. And he did so with a "holy excuse," a principle that Jesus had probably articulated himself. Shouldn't this have been sold and the money given to the poor? How could she do something like this? And how could Jesus have allowed it?
Jesus rebuked Judas's condemnation with a more important principle. "You do not always have me with you, but you do always have the poor. You have constant opportunities to act lavishly toward them."
It's a sharp rebuke that cuts to the quick of Judas, especially as John's gospel presents him. In John, Judas cares only about money, and he's skimming it off the top of the group's common treasury for himself. He could care less about the poor. So his excuse is hypocritical. Jesus calls him on it, and Judas knows it.
But Jesus did more than rebuke Judas for his greed. He also rebuked him for his inability to appreciate what this lavish outpouring by Mary could mean. Judas saw waste. Jesus saw anointing for burial. Judas was looking at his own soul. Jesus was looking at what all was going on around him. Judas pulled out a past teaching to justify his disgust. Jesus embraced the lavishness of the moment -- the Presence in the present -- as a gift and invited everyone around him to see it as a sign.
How do we join what God is doing in the here and now? How do we Practice the Presence in the Present?
Jesus shows us here. We appreciate what is happening looking for signs of the love and kingdom of God at work, expecting to see them.
Or in other words, we allow the Spirit to retune our senses and our awareness to detect the signals of what God is doing more strongly than what "the powers" or our own sinful preoccupations may transmit.
When Jesus confronts Judas, we might say he reveals Judas is tuned in to the wrong channel. And he shows him the excuses he might claim were holy were instead a form of self-justification.
So who in your midst has heard the confrontation of Jesus and become more tuned to the channel of God's kingdom than the powers or their sinful desires? How has this happened for them? And how has it led them to become more attentive to and ready to join up with what God is doing in the here and now? Might one or more of them be willing to offer a brief testimony in worship today?
And how will you invite others in worship today to listen to where Jesus may be confronting them, too, and begin or begin again to make a shift in how their senses are tuned to what is happening around them?
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Excursus on "The poor you always have with you"
"The poor you always have with you, and you may do good to them whenever you wish," Jesus says. Too many Christians over the centuries have interpreted these words as if Judas, rather than Jesus, spoke them. Jesus, who had few resources of his own, spoke them about Mary, a relatively poor woman with only one treasure, to Judas, a wealthy man. Judas, indeed, had the resources to help the poor any time he wished. The evidence from John's gospel suggests he never once did so.
Jesus is also quoting the Bible when he says this. Deuteronomy 15:11 begins "There will always be poor people among you in the land." And then it continues, "Therefore, I command you to open wide you hand toward your sisters and brothers and toward the poor and needy in your land."
Jesus, who had scarcely any personal resources, may not have had money set aside to prepare him for burial at his death. Mary, perhaps without being fully aware of it, had fulfilled the commandment by opening wide her hand and pouring her treasure on Jesus.
And Judas? He neither obeyed the commandment nor could see it being fulfilled before his eyes by Mary's action. He kept his wealth and would use what he could to justify doing so.
So perhaps it is a Judas-reading of Jesus' reply to Judas that would lead the wealthy and powerful to say, "The poor you will always have with you. There's nothing we can or should try to do to change that fact, because it is simply inevitable. Any attempt by the wider culture to address that is a waste of money, time and energy."
In a predestinarian worldview and theology, that reading may make sense. But it would have made no sense to Jesus, nor to Charles and John Wesley and the early Methodists.
The commandment of the Holy One is to open wide our hands to the poor and needy around us, constantly.
The second General Rule reminds us to do the same when it says Methodists are expected to show they seek to flee the wrath to come and to be saved from their sins "By doing good; by being in every kind merciful after their power; as they have opportunity, doing good of every possible sort, and, as far as possible, to all men: To their bodies, of the ability which God giveth, by giving food to the hungry, by clothing the naked, by visiting or helping them that are sick or in prison."
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Embodying the Word: The Offering
"Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also" (Matthew 6:21). Although this teaching from the Sermon on the Mount is not part of our lectionary readings for today, it resonates with all of them. What we treasure and how we treasure it reflects our values. In the capitalist societies in North America, treasure primarily equals money. So what we do with money -- how we store it, where and how we invest it, where and how we spend it -- may be the most substantial demonstration of our values we make in this culture.
So the ritual act of the offering matters. To be sure, it matters for most of our churches today in a different way than it did for the churches John Wesley knew. In Wesley's England, the monetary offering collected was called "Alms," and almost all of that money was used to support each parish's ministries of outreach and assistance to the poor. Clergy, musicians, and general "upkeep" costs for the churches were paid by the state. So when the "alms" were collected, they really were like the "Communion offerings" many of our churches receive today for similar purposes. That is why these monies were placed on the Lord's Table -- because they were understood as one of the ways the congregation extended the Lord's Table, not only with the food shared on it, but with tangible signs of the love of the community for the poor and needy.
In what became the United States, of course, the states did not generally pay for the clergy or physical facilities of congregations. Early Methodists in the U.S. could not count on state support anywhere. This is why they would use part of the money collected in class meetings for the "upkeep of the preachers," while the money collected in Sunday worship, at least initially, still functioned as "alms." In time, especially as class meeting participation began to wane in the early 19th century, what was collected in worship now had to cover both "institutional upkeep" and local needs. And it wasn't long before the former outpaced the latter, and the "primary" offering itself became disconnected from Holy Communion.
This is why many Methodists, among others, came to institute a second "Communion offering" for the poor, collected when Communion was celebrated, typically once per quarter or at most once per month because of the limited availability of persons authorized to preside. In many United Methodist congregations, this practice has continued to this day.
Question: How well does this practice reflect the values of Jesus for his body, the church? If Christ is all in all for us, which offering of money should be regular and which extra -- not just in words, but in funding and ritual practice?
At the same time, our ritual calls for two other offerings as well. Along with the "expense offering," the Hymnal and Book of Worship commend the practice of a "presentation of the gifts" of bread and wine that will be used in Holy Communion (see UMH p. 8). And the Great Thanksgiving itself is yet another offering, as we pray "we offer ourselves in praise and thanksgiving as a holy and living sacrifice, in union with Christ's offering for us" (UMH 10).
Question: Do all of these different acts of offering seem connected to you or to your congregation? Or do these things come off as separate acts with little connection or relationship to one another? If so, what does this disconnection say about how well the congregation understands where its treasure is and how it is being intentional about practicing the Presence of Christ in the present?
Lent is a time for training newcomers and reminding the whole congregation of the essential beliefs and practices of the way of Jesus, including our worship practices together. How will you begin to help your congregation reflect its devotion to Jesus and his teaching in its worship and its giving through the offerings of money, of gifts, and of yourselves in praise and thanksgiving this Sunday and in the weeks ahead?
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BOW 453 (Psalm)
Call to worship for Lent V, Year C (based on Isaiah 55:1 and 43:18-19)
Ho, everyone who thirsts,
come to the waters.
We seek the living water, Jesus Christ.
Do not remember the former things,
or consider the things of old.
We seek the new way, Jesus Christ.
I am about to do a new thing;
now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness
and rivers in the desert.
We seek new life in Jesus Christ.
The hymn or song to follow may continue the anticipation of baptism, new life, repentance of clinging to the former things, such as "Give Me a Clean Heart" (TFWS 2133), "Change My Heart, O God" (TFWS 2152), "Lead On, O Cloud of Presence" (TFWS 2234), "My Life Is in You, Lord" (TFWS 2032), or "This Is a Day of New Beginnings" (UMH 383).
Canticle: UMH 135, "Canticle of Moses and Miriam" (Isaiah, Psalm)
Prayer of Confession (adding an invitation and pardon): BOW 480 (Philippians)
Response: BOW 201, "O Lamb of God" (Lent)
The Great Thanksgiving: BOW 62-63
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BOW 186, "An Indian Blessing."
BOW 564 (Isaiah, John)
This is the final week to preach before we begin to enter into the texts that chronicle the final week of Jesus' earthly life. As it turns out, all of these passages deal in some way or another with facing a crisis.
In this passage from Isaiah, the overriding concern of God's people is their exile. They've lost everything they've ever known, and they feel like the Lord has abandoned them.
How do we deal with those inevitable periods of time when it feels as if God has abandoned us? Where is God in the midst of disaster? Why did God allow terrible things to happen to God's chosen people, and why does God allow terrible things to happen to us?
The prophet tries to speak a word of encouragement and a word of hope to these kinds of questions and to point a way forward for all who suffer from tragedy, loss, grief, and shame. Isaiah reminds Israel that God has delivered them in the past, and God will deliver them again. Indeed, not only will God deliver them, but God is about to "do a new thing." God will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.
These images speak a word of encouragement and hope to us as well, as we prepare to embark upon the tragic, shameful, horrific events of Holy Week. How do the prophet's words give hope to us as they did to the chosen people so many generations ago? How can his vision point a way through what lies ahead for our Lord, and indeed for us, as we go with him toward the cross?
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Here the Apostle Paul is pondering the question "What does it mean to be in Christ"? As a way of starting to get at this question, you might gather a group of people from your congregation and ask them what they think it means to be "in Christ."
Paul describes his experience by comparing his new life "in Christ" with his former worldly life and accomplishments. And according to him, his was a great success story. He was born Jewish, a member of the tribe of Benjamin, one of God's chosen people. He was a Pharisee, a zealous persecutor of would-be Christ followers, completely righteous and blameless according to the standards of the law.
If we were to list our worldly accomplishments, our resume of success, if you will, what sorts of things would we include? How do we measure our success by the standards of the world? Maybe we've made a lot of money, bought a big house, enjoyed a happy relationship, borne and raised successful children. Maybe we are physically beautiful. Maybe we got the job we always wanted or have gained the respect of people in our field. Maybe we have power and influence over others. Or maybe, for some of us, being successful in this life means we have a warm place to live and have been able to pay all our bills this month. Success in this world has many different measures.
But Paul says that no matter what measure we use to determine our success, none of that matters in comparison to what he has found in Christ. All that was important to him before is now rubbish. Being in Christ is all that matters to him now. It is the only prize he seeks or wants or desires. In his words, he has put all of these worldly things aside "In order that I may gain Christ and be found in him."
It is as if Paul is describing his experience of being in Christ as something that has seized him, something quite outside of himself that he didn't initiate and can't control. Christ has seized his identity and character and reshaped it in his likeness. Christ has seized his very life.
Right here is where I think Paul's words begin to seize us. Because we can understand what he means: Haven't we all been "seized" by Christ at some point?
Being seized by Christ is usually not a sustained thing. Rather, it is momentary experience, a glimpse, a second when we feel our "heart strangely warmed"; or we find ourselves at one of those rare thin-place moments in which the grace of God overwhelms us. We feel Christ's presence; we feel God's grace; we feel assurance. We feel it; and then, as quickly as it came, it goes away.
These experiences are fleeting by their very nature. We can't sustain them or live in them constantly. We live in the real world, and we have to go back to our lives, the daily grind of our existence. But we REMEMBER those moments. They are enough to sustain us through the many hours and days and weeks and months and even years when God seems to be farther away.
And once we've known what it is to be "in Christ," we want more of that feeling of God's holiness, God's overwhelming love and grace; and so it does become the prize that we seek, a prize more important than any accomplishment the world has to offer, whether power, fame, wealth, status. Being in Christ becomes our goal, our greatest desire. And the things of this world become more and more like rubbish compared to this desire to be in Christ.
How has Christ seized the people in your congregation? How has Christ seized you? How has it transformed the lives of your people? How has it transformed your own life? And how can the memories of those moments help to sustain us through the difficult times? How can they sustain us as we walk with Jesus toward the cross?
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Last year, I had an opportunity to teach a class on "Women in the New Testament" for undergraduate students at Tennessee Wesleyan College. Having not ever specifically studied this subject before, looking at the gospel stories from this new perspective has forever changed the way I read stories like the one for today. For example, my first thought as I read this story through this time was to be reminded that women were among the disciples who traveled with Jesus. Before preparing for and teaching this class, I had always imagined that when Jesus traveled about the holy lands preaching and teaching and healing that he was with twelve men. But having studied the subject of women's roles more deeply, I now picture Jesus traveling with more than twelve, and likely in the company of a number of women.
These women were not there just to perform necessary daily duties, such as preparing and serving food and cleaning up after the male disciples. They were disciples in their own right. Among those who many scholars consider to have traveled as Jesus' disciples are Mary and Martha. In the past, I had thought of Mary and Martha as the sisters of Jesus' friend Lazarus who provided a place to stay for Jesus when he was in Bethany. Perhaps I also imagined that Mary and Martha were also Jesus' friends. But I had never thought of them as among his closest disciples.
Clearly, though, there is evidence that these two women were among the close group of followers that Jesus most trusted and loved. And perhaps nowhere is this more evident than in this passage from John's gospel, which tells the story of Mary anointing Jesus' feet with a pound of costly perfume and wiping it off with her hair.
Bonnie Thurston offers an enlightening treatment of this text in her book, Women in the New Testament (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 1998). Drawing first on Sandra Schneider's work "Women in the Fourth Gospel and the Role of Women in the Contemporary Church" (Biblical Theology Bulletin 12 : 35–45), Thurston notes several interesting things about John's portrayal of women. First, "in John no woman is shown as resisting Jesus, failing to believe, deserting, or betraying him. . . . Second, the women characters in John are highly individuated, and women's experience is depicted as nuance." Finally, "women are depicted as playing unconventional roles."
Thurston then goes on to draw attention first to the conversation that occurred between Martha and Jesus as integral to setting the scene for today's lesson. After wondering about the tone of Martha's voice in verse 11:21 ("Is her statement one of fact or of chiding Jesus for allowing Lazarus to die?"), Thurston rather radically asserts that Martha's belief in the Resurrection is "the most fully developed confession in John," one that parallels Peter's confession in the Synoptic Gospels. And furthermore, that Martha "seems to understand what she has said much more clearly than Peter did."
So it is in this context that we might approach Mary's actions anew in the passage for today. Thurston states, "One of the great crises that early Christians faced was how to deal with the death of believers. . . . In John 11, Mary and Martha are representative of those in John's community who had to face the challenge of the death of fellow believers. Martha meets that challenge by a full confession of faith in Jesus before his resurrection, and thus serves as a model for others in the community who will find themselves in similar circumstances. In John's gospel Peter plays a secondary role to the Beloved Disciple, and so it is consistent that Martha and not he would be the Johannine model of steadfast faith. Martha and Mary are those who are willing to trust in the face of death itself the new life that Jesus promises." (Thurston, 88. Emphasis mine.)
Perhaps even more interesting is Thurston's read on Mary's anointing as the event that gives Jesus "the idea for the footwashing that follows in chapter 13; Mary's act becomes the means he uses to illustrate dramatically the meaning of discipleship." Thurston believes that "When Mary anoints the feet of Jesus, she not only predicts his death and incorrupt resurrection; she becomes a disciple in a technical sense as she fulfills the Lord's command in 13:14–15. Mary assumes her right to approach Jesus and express her love. . . . In John, Mary and Martha are crucial characters. Martha is depicted as the representative of faith and full Christological confession. Mary by her initiative represents the active practice of discipleship" (Thurston, 89).
I debated with my colleague Taylor about whether Mary thought of this act as a funeral anointing or a royal anointing, or if Jesus could have understood it that way. Ultimately we can't ever know the answer to these questions. But what I am convinced of is that among the disciples, Martha and Mary seem to be the only ones who really seemed to understand that their close friend and teacher is going to die. While all of the other disciples refuse to hear Jesus when he tells them repeatedly what lies ahead, Martha and Mary seem to be willing to enter into that reality. If Martha and Mary were indeed disciples, then I want to suggest that, contrary to popular opinion about the disciples' general refusal to believe what Jesus was telling them, there were at least TWO disciples who DID get it.
The action Mary takes—anointing Jesus' feet—is an act of startling intimacy and vulnerability. Whether or not she was intentionally anointing him in preparation for his death, there can be little doubt that by this act, Mary expresses her willingness to join with Jesus in whatever lies ahead for him. Just as he will not abandon them, she is showing that she and Martha will not abandon him, no matter how difficult it gets. They will stay with him all the way to the grave.
It is a difficult thing to go with someone on a journey to the grave. Most of us don't like to think about death. We don't like to watch someone die, and we don't want to dwell too much on the inevitable fact of our own death. But as we come to this point in the story of our Lord, we have to get ready to face it. And surely Martha and Mary show us here that we must have the courage to stay with our loved ones when they are on that journey; we can't abandon them simply because we are afraid for ourselves.
Mary, in particular, shows us that we have to be willing not just to stay, but to get very close, to engage and empathize fully with those who are facing death. We have to touch them, and hold them, and anoint their skin with fragrant oils.
We can't be afraid to help others to face death. Indeed, we can't be afraid to face our OWN death. It is critical that we preach this story as amazing good news. Because the story of Jesus tells us that death is not the final chapter. There is always hope and new life beyond the darkness of this present moment. Resurrection awaits us all.
So let us enter into this final stage of the journey, this Holy Week, NOT afraid to come face-to-face with what lies ahead for our Lord, and not afraid to face what lies ahead for each of us. Let us enter into the cruelty of the cross with our eyes wide open and focused clearly on that which lies beyond the grave. Let us face death with same strength and compassion and hope that Mary had. Let us lay hands on the dying with the sure and certain knowledge that nothing—not death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
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