Homily for Passion Sunday C

In Uncategorized on March 19, 2010 at 9:52 pm

In 1726 Abbe d’Allainval wrote a play called, in translation,
“The Embarrassment of Riches”.
The phrase has taken on a life of its own.
And to my mind seems an appropriate one
to encapsulate what our gospel circumstance might have felt like.
A pound of perfume.

Mary, sister of Lazarus, turns the action accorded honoured guests,
the footwashing which we will witness on Maundy Thursday,
into something beyond mere extravagance.

And Judas, understandably, notes the waste
in a world where there is poverty and need.

Judas asks the question that is probably on the minds of others there:
at what price beauty and symbol and generosity,
when real need is elsewhere?

Then that moment of discomfort that comes
when people ask those sorts of questions…

‘Til Jesus comes emphatically Mary’s defence, “Leave her alone!”
To the defence of this extravagance
in the face of acknowledged and real human need.
“You always have the poor with you.”

How can Jesus sanction Mary’s gift, the equivalent of a year’s wages?
What does it tell us that Jesus keeps company
with people so obviously wealthy?
Can the poor and the marginalised in our world find any sort of liberation
in this moment of private excess in the midst of so much suffering?
Yet it is an act of grace.  Of generosity.  Of intimacy.
This same Mary who before sat at Jesus’ feet while Martha served,
now turns this into an immensely intimate
and sensual moment of human beauty.

And Judas interrupts this moment of intimacy – as he will later
interrupt the intimacy of the Mount of Olives – with his betrayal.

This intimacy comes in the context
of future suffering and current violence planned against Jesus.
This is, like the Last Supper, the calm before the storm.
Next comes Palm Sunday and the frantic, passionate, demanding crowd.
This is a snapshot of human beauty before we see the ugliness
of the crowd which cries “hosanna” and “crucify” in quick succession.
This is, in the words of Isaiah, one of the “rivers in the desert”.

More than that,
Mary is anointing the Christ, the Messiah.

Before he enters as king, however mis-identified, on Palm Sunday,
John has us see that the true king, like all the Kings of Israel,
has been anointed prior to his coming into the Holy City of Jerusalem.
The title we ascribe to Jesus of Nazareth, “Christos”
– like the Hebrew word it translates, “Messiah” – means “anointed”.

What a radical image John is presenting us with,
a woman, not a man, not a priest, anointing the Christ.

Sit this alongside the consistent attestation
that it was women who first heard the good news of Easter morning,
and we are here reminded – as is Judas –
that the values of the Kingdom are not those of the world as it is.
Perhaps, too, we half-sense that the perfume Mary uses
had so recently been put aside for anointing the body of her brother, Lazarus.
In each incident the gospel writer refers to the other.
Mary, like us, may have a sense of foreboding
about what lies ahead for Jesus.

Whether she knows it or not,
Mary’s act is taken by Jesus as a foreshadowing of the cross.
He is being prepared for burial,
and we are reminded that this figure who sits at table
with both the respectable and those completely beyond the pale
is the same figure who dies a criminal’s death between two thieves.

And I think we can go still further.
The fragrance of Mary’s perfume fills the house,
bringing to mind the Temple filled with incense.
Paul speaking of the “fragrance of Christ” permeating the world.

Mary, like Martha, is an image of the church.
Martha serves and offers practical care,
Mary sits at the feet of the Lord, sharing in his intimacy,
living her own costly life of service,
finding in this the strength to endure the suffering that is to come.

We are called to be a people who worship,
who find intimacy with God.
Our service and care for the poor is vital,
but is impoverished and perhaps unsustainable
if we do not know the beauty of our being,
if we cannot enter into the graceful extravagance of our existence,
… so that we can withstand the pain of our own Good Fridays.
The pain of feeling separated from God.
The pain of grief and of silence.

Here, a depiction of the experience of regular prayer and worship,
so helps us endure those times when we cannot pray.

Mary is a woman open to God.
Mary is in this moment what God has called humankind to be,
what Israel was never able to embody, fidelity and openness to God.
She is, at this point in time, what Judas is unable to comprehend.
She embodies all that is impractical but beautiful,
all that speaks about human worth in terms other that dollars and cents.
The human worth that only values humanity in abstract terms is the figure
who knows with suspicious exactitude the precise value of Mary’s generosity.
Knows its value, but not its worth.

The figure who will put a price on his Lord
and betray him with another moment of intimacy, a kiss.
Judas may talk the talk,
but his intentions are neither beautiful nor marked by fidelity.
And ultimately, it is his selfishness and narrow vision
which will swallow up his charitable intent.

We are called to be a people of justice.
But we are called beyond all else to be the People of God.
To be caught up in the delight of worship and fellowship with God
for which we were created.
To embrace the passion of suffering and cost, born of love,
that we see in Our Lord’s living and dying.

As we travel this Passiontide road with Jesus,
may we be truly open to God.


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