Sunday, April 1, 2012
Today is Passion Sunday. Passion Sunday gives the occasion for celebrating faith that does not buckle under the weight of the cross. The same two chapters that display the mighty failure of Jesus’ closest friends also report acts of courage and fidelity - Simon of Cyrene who carried Jesus’ cross, the centurion who confesses that Jesus is the son of god, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of Joses, and Salome who watch and wait at their own peril so that they can give Jesus the burial he deserves, joseph of arimathea - a member of the council - who, at some risk to himself, goes “boldly to pilate” to ask for the body of Jesus, and the woman who anoints Jesus with a costly jar of oil.
The unnamed woman with the ointment dared to act on her belief, even when it upset the status quo and made others uncomfortable. As disciples, we are invited to act on our belief, on behalf of Jesus, in remembrance of her.
Today is one of the hardest days of the entire church year on which to affirm the faith we claim as our own. We are invited to consider the ambivalence Christians have always shown, an ambivalence that welcomes the One who is Radiant Truth Incarnate with shouts and songs of praise one moment . . . and nails him to the cross the next moment. We are asked to wrestle deeply with our own discomfort at the challenging mandate of Jesus, and with our own broken response to our discipleship.
The story of this day and this week is not about some other people in some other time. It is about us. It reveals the full reality of our own spiritual journey, which encompassses moments of abiding commitment to holiness and, at the same time, a faint-heartedness that leads us to deny our principles in the time of trial, leaving us ACTING IN SECRET with the powers and principalities. Indeed, leaving us to deny the one we call Messiah, not once, not twice, not three times, but again and again and again - Daily.
In the midst of the story of Jesus' passion, we find a most challenging text, a snapshot of an encounter between Jesus and an unnamed woman with a jar of precious ointment. Because we are entering Holy Week, it is tempting to read quickly past these verses, seeing them as nothing more than background for the important stuff. But I would submit to you that this may be the most important part of the story, and I invite us to linger here this year to consider it with prayerful hearts.
Let us remember that all four of the Gospels include stories of pivotal meetings that Jesus has with women, events that change Jesus and his ministry profoundly. Think, for instance, about the wedding in Cana and the request from his mother for Jesus to help the host out of an awkward situation. Although Jesus initially rebuffs Mary, he goes on to transform the water into wine. Think of the meeting with the persistent Canaanite woman who begs him to heal her child. Think of the meeting with the Samaritan woman at the well through whom Jesus reaches out to the villagers of Samaria, the rejected sisters and brothers of the "chosen people." Each describes A THRESHOLD moment in which Jesus himself was transformed, or changed direction, or altered, or expanded his teaching.
Here, again, in this encounter, there is a transformation. Jesus is sitting at dinner in Bethany. The text suggests that he is in the home of friends. Nothing about the dinner seems particularly OUT OF PLACE until an unnamed woman enters the room, opens a jar of ointment, and pours it on his head. Let's not quibble about nuances of the original Greek text. The translations read, "She poured the ointment on his head." It does not read, "She dabbed a little ointment on his hair" or "She patted some ointment on his forehead." The text reads, "She . . . poured the ointment on his head" (Mk 14:3).
Imagine if you will having a jar of highly scented ointment (we learn this is ointment for burial, so it is probably nard or myrrh) dumped over your head as you're eating a meal. I believe I would have been more than a little startled. Imagine the rest of the dinner party responding to this event. Notice that the story does not say that people rushed to wipe away the ointment or to clean up the mess or to express concern for Jesus. What it says is that some of the people were angry about the interruption and that others scolded the woman. Jesus, meanwhile, is sitting there with ointment spreading through his hair and down the sides of his head.
Into the noise and the babble, he says, "Stop." Then, in the silence, he makes a statement about the action of the woman, "She has performed a good service for me . . . She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial" (vv. 6, 8).
Because of the context of this story, I suspect the majority of us have never bothered to stop and think about the powerful witness of this woman. She is the first person who believes what Jesus has been saying about what is going to happen when Jesus meets the authorities. She is the first person who publicly and visibly acknowledges his imminent death. She does what she can. She cannot stop him or save him, but she can show him that she has listened to him and really, truly heard him. She can honor him and grieve him, and she can do it in such a way that Jesus knows someone cares. Jesus knows that someone is not wasting time denying what he is saying because it is too hard to hear, or because it makes her anxious, or because it is uncomfortable. She dares to pay attention and she risks believing. And then she acts on what she believes.
If Jesus had any doubts; if he perhaps thought this cup might pass his lips, this unnamed woman disabuses him. In her response, she offers her own strength to match his resolve, to support him in his coming passion. And in Mark's Gospel, her action and Jesus' recognition of it set in motion the final events that lead to the crucifixion.
As we enter into the story of this many-layered week again, I would invite us to pause with this unnamed woman and ask what she can offer us as a model of discipleship. It is so easy, 2000 years after these events, to be lulled by the narcotic of superficial piety. In truth, the shock of Jesus' cru- cifixion has become pretty dull. Hastily turning our mind to his divinity or to the resurrection when we become uncomfortable, seductively avoids any deep awareness of his pain.
But this unnamed woman didn't give in to any of that. She didn't sit around talking about what Jesus might mean; she didn't get deflected by plans or possibilities. She entered straight into the heart of the matter and prepared Jesus for his death.
Not only did this woman transform that day and that place for Jesus, she challenges us to remember that Jesus told us he died - and will die - every time one of the least of us is sacrificed on the cross of power. She challenges us to remember that Jesus, therefore, is dying every minute of every day . . . often because of our inaction, ignorance, or greed. She challenges us to believe that Jesus is dying and to dare to do what we can. She challenges us to claim our power to make a difference this year . . . as she made the only difference she could all those years ago. This year, I invite us to take up her challenge in remembrance of her. Amen.