A sermon for Monday in Holy Week preached by David Barton on 29 March 2021.
As always in the fourth gospel there is more in that passage than we might expect – more than one thing going on. This passage is telling us a bit about the life of the early church. We are in the home of Martha and Mary and Lazarus. And its a glimpse of John’s church at worship. Its “six days before the Sabbath”, John says. So….Sunday, the day of Resurrection. For the early Christians now, the Jewish Sabbath has been replaced by the day of Jesus’ Resurrection – the first day of the week. You have to remember that in this gospel Jesus is sacrificed on the cross at the very moment the Passover lambs are being slaughtered in the temple. A new and better sacrifice is here. The old order really has gone, a new order is here.
So on this day the community are gathered round the table. Christ – here Christ in person, but in the readers experience then, as now, the Risen Christ – the Risen Christ always presides, at this and every other Eucharistic feast. The disciples, are there, and notice, Martha, who serves. That word serve, in Greek, was by now a technical term for an officer of the Christian Church. The place of women in this story has to be noticed. Disciples were the ones who had the right to wash their teacher’s feet. So that means Mary is a disciple, as Martha must have been too. It is a clue to the importance of the place of women in the ministry and life of the early church.
But those are the bits round the edge, as it were. The heart of this story is this
Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance.
Its an extraordinary, full-hearted, not-counting-the-cost action. And it must have been hugely expensive. We know that from what Judas says. Its not really that Judas is wrong: care of the poor had been a major part of Jesus ministry in Galilee. But Judas is missing the essence of everything Jesus has said. We are loved by God with an overwhelming, unbelievably generous, forgiving love. Nothing stands in its way. That was Jesus message, and that’s why Jesus takes his path to the cross. Mary sees that and understands it, and she is responding as gratefully as she can.
One way of understanding this passage is to see it as part of a series of reflections, mirrors. Mary’s action here mirrors the action of Christ himself at the last supper, later in this gospel. He strips and washes his disciples feet. And that action itself mirrors Jesus self surrender on the cross, the next day, when again he is stripped, his clothing laid aside, and hands and feet are pierced with nails.
But we won’t see those extraordinary experiences of love if we live by a rational, balance sheet mind. The heart is wiser than the head. Orthodox Christians have a saying they repeat often: Put your head in your heart and stand before God in Prayer. It is the only way we can look at life.
The point of having this passage at the start of Holy Week is to remind us that Jesus calls us to live with a generous, compassionate heart. It is the key to everything. But it isn’t always easy. So much easier to stick with the measurable things, as Judas did. So much easier to be critical rather than generous in judgement. So much easier to live with reserve rather than open heartedly. So easy to look away from the person asking for money outside the local shop. A generous, compassionate heart simply goes the other way. It doesn’t weigh things up. It gives without counting the cost. It toils without seeking any kind of rest. It asks for no justification except the giving.
And, crucially, to live in such a way means we can look at the cross and begin to understand in our deepest selves what it means. Rational argument, a balance of possibilities will never allow us to see the deep truth of God and the ways of God. But when we have even the smallest glimpse of that, it all turns round: that way of living will not be something that we consciously “do”. It’s a gift of compassion, God’s compassion in us and flowing through us. Then we become the final mirror in that series of reflections.
Holy Week is here to waken us to that gift, to nurture it and draw us into its life and flow. We must put our head in our hearts and stand before God in prayer this week.