Today’s Lectionary Gospel Passage: John 12: 1-8
We are a “doing” society—running and scurrying from appointment to appointment and from one major life event to the next. Everything tells us that we should be looking ahead, planning and preparing for what will come next. Maybe that’s why this season of Lent is difficult for us. It is the walk that marks the end of Jesus’ ministry, the journey that takes us toward the end of what we know, to the place for which we cannot plan. It’s not an easy walk. It’s hard to know what we’re supposed to do. Perhaps that’s the point. Perhaps we’re not supposed to be DOING anything at all. Perhaps this is the time when we’re just supposed to BE.
And so Lent begins to strip us—of those things to which we hang out of habit or comfort, of our sense of identification with Jesus’ ministry and journey, and even of our proud certainty-driven shouts of Alleluia. All of that is packed away for this season, perhaps in an effort to make our difficult journey to the cross a little lighter and a little more intentional. This is the season when we try NOT to look ahead to that empty cross and the rolled-away tomb. Not yet, anyway. This is the season when we are here. Just here…here in this place and here in this time and surrounded by what surrounds us right now. It is time to stop doing and planning, if only for a little while. It is time to realize that this place where you stand IS holy ground. Here…
In this Year C of our Lectionary, we actually read this passage twice—once for this fifth Sunday of Lent and then again on the Monday of Holy Week. Sometimes that presents a bit of a challenge for us to make sure that we don’t sound like we’re repeating ourselves. But maybe this Scripture is more about living in the now than some others are anyway.
In the previous chapter, Jesus has raised Martha and Mary’s brother, Lazarus, from the dead. The event would be the turning point of the Gospel story. With that, the wheels have been set in motion that will take Jesus to the cross. After all, for those trying to maintain the status quo, keep things the way they are, this was too much. Jesus had to be stopped. “So,” the text says, “from that day on they planned to put him to death.” It is the turning point into the passion of Holy Week.
But here…what about now? Think about it. You can imagine how Martha and Mary must have felt when their only brother, whom they loved, had died. We’ve all been there, wishing for just one more moment, just one more look, just one more embrace. But here…that is exactly what they have. They had Lazarus back. They could look at him; they could hold him. And Jesus had done it all for them. Their gratefulness could not even be expressed. So, they threw a party. It was all that they could think of to do. So Martha pulled out the best linens and the best dishes. She cooked up her finest recipes and they went and pulled the best wine (you know, the stuff that had been saved for years for a “special occasion”) out of the store room. And they began to celebrate. They all knew that things had changed, that the threats of what was to come hung in the air outside, heavy with the stench of death. They all knew that the end was fast approaching. But today…today their brother was lost and now was found! Only in this case, he was “really” lost—they assumed permanently—and was “really” found. Before they were deep in grief and now they are ecstatic in thankfulness and celebration. And so this evening, now, here in this time, here in this place, they would celebrate.
And here Mary can no longer contain herself. “What Jesus has done for me and my family,” she thought, “is beyond words of thankfulness, beyond anything I can imagine. And now he has put himself on the line.” So, with the deepest compassion and thankfulness, she made her way to the corner, where the expensive oil sat on the top shelf. There it was protected and saved. And Mary took it, broke the seal, and began to pour it generously and extravagantly on Jesus’ feet. She knew that Jesus was about to walk through something that she could not even fathom. And all because he had done something for her and her family. The fragrance filled the house as those in the room stood there in shock. Mary was surely out of her mind—wasting that expensive oil that could have been sold for good money and touching Jesus’ feet and then unbinding her hair in mixed company and wiping Jesus feet with it. What must she be thinking?
The truth was, they were right. Mary was not thinking normally. She was not thinking about how much the oil had cost or for what other things it could have been used or saved. She was not thinking about how it all looked and what proper society and the rules that bound her thought. She wasn’t even thinking about what was going to happen in a few days. Now was not the time for grief. Now was the time to spend together, to love, and to share, and, if only for a moment, to pour extravagance on one another. She did not want to ever again spend time wishing that she had one more moment, or one more look, or one more embrace. They were here. And she was grateful beyond all words.
But more than the party, more than the priceless oil, Mary gave Jesus probably the greatest gift she could—her presence. Being present in our spiritual life always sort of has two meanings. There’s being present, as in being there, sitting there. And then there’s the present, as in now, as in here, in this moment of time. We probably do OK with the first. We’re all perfectly capable of showing up at the appointed time that is noted on our calendar or our Blackberry. But being attentive to the presence is much harder. It means living in this moment and noticing everything that it holds. It means living here, right where you are, and realizing that it is truly holy ground. It means paying attention to each other.
This living in the moment with full awareness is not a new thing. Most of the world’s religions see that as a necessary spiritual discipline. Zen Buddhism talks about it as “nowness.” Hindu, Jewish, Moslem, and Christian understandings all urge us to make the most of every opportunity. Dan Wakefield says that “theologically, you cannot see the future.” He goes on to say that “traditional Judaism sees that as arrogance—it’s like picking God’s pocket.” (Dan Wakefield, in Creating from the Spirit) God has given us the here and now and God is moving through this moment. Why, then, are we in such a hurry to leave it behind?
Philip Simmons says that “the present moment, like the spotted owl or the sea turtle, has become an endangered species. Yet more and more I find that dwelling in the present moment, in the face of everything that would call us out of it, is our highest spiritual discipline. More boldly, I would say that our very “presentness” is our salvation; the present moment, entered into fully, is our gateway to eternal life.” (Philip Simmons, in Learning to Fall) For me, that is a powerful statement. But it makes sense. Our lives as well as our spiritual journeys are not goals to reach or things to be accomplished. (The Epistle passage says that.) Instead, we walk a road that is made up of holy moments, each one a gift from God, that are strung together with a tapestry and an artistry that only God can do. Each one opens to the next; each one opens to whatever God holds for us; each one is significant by itself and made holy as it spills into the next. If we choose to live our lives based on expected outcomes or hold back on part of our living waiting for the right moment, we have missed the holiness that is here.
Terry Hershey is an Episcopal Priest and lecturer that sends out a weekly email entitled “Sabbath Moment”. I appreciate it because it talks about taking time and appreciating time and living time—all those things with which I, like many of us, struggle. In this week’s writing, he tells the story of a Hindu holy man who reached the outskirts of a village and settled down under a tree for the night when a villager came running up to him. The villager screamed, “The stone! The stone! Give me the precious stone!” ”What stone?” asked the holy man. “Last night the Lord Shiva appeared to me in a dream,” said the villager, “And told me that I went to the outskirts of the village at dusk, I should find a holy man who would give me a precious stone that would make me rich forever.”
The holy man rummaged in his bag and pulled out a stone. “He probably meant this one,” he said, as he handed the stone over to the villager. “I found it on a forest path some days ago. You can certainly have it.” The man gazed at the stone in wonder. It was a diamond, probably the largest diamond in the whole world, for it was as large as a person’s head. He took the diamond and walked away. All night he tossed about in bed, unable to sleep. The next day at the crack of dawn, he woke the holy man and said, “Now, please, please give me the wealth that makes it possible for you to give this diamond away so easily.”
Hershey says that the diamond is a metaphor for the “one more thing”. You know, the encounter or accoutrement or experience that will give us the sensation that we have arrived. You know, where we “should” be…And in our “blindness” we do not recognize the value of any true diamond we hold in our hands.
He goes on and uses a piece that was written several years ago by Robert Hastings called “The Station”. Here’s how it goes:
Tucked away in our subconscious is an idyllic vision. We see ourselves on a long trip that spans the continent. We are traveling by train. Out the window we drink in the passing scene of cars on nearby highways, of children waving at a crossing, of cattle grazing on a distant hillside, of smoke pouring from a power plant, of row upon row of corn and wheat, of flatlands and valleys, of mountains and rolling hillsides, or city skylines and village halls. But uppermost in our minds is the final destination. On a certain day at a certain hour we will pull into the station. Banks will be playing and flags waving. Once we get there so many wonderful dreams will come true and the pieces of our lives will fit together like a completed jigsaw puzzle. How restlessly we pace the aisles, damning the minutes for loitering – waiting, waiting, waiting for the station.
When we reach the station, that will be it!”, we cry. “When I’m 18.” “When I buy a new SL Mercedes Benz!” “When I put the last kid through college.” “When I have paid off the mortgage!” “When I get a promotion.” “When I reach the age of retirement, I shall live happily ever after!”
Sooner or later, we must realize there is no station, no one place to arrive at once and for all. The true joy of life is the trip. The station is only a dream. It constantly outdistances us…Life must be lived as we go along. The station will come soon enough. (From “The Diamond”, by Terry Hershey, in Sabbath Moment, March 15, 2010)
So, here we are. What do we do with this moment? Do we attempt to save it for later? Sure, you and I both have faith enough to know that God will give us another. But think what we’d miss. Perhaps this season of Lent, as it cleanses us and strips us, leaves us just vulnerable to make us look around at what is here, to learn to live the life that God wants for us, without regrets for the past or worries about the future. Mary got that. Days later, Jesus’ walk would end. But Mary would have no regrets this time. In this moment, here, she lifted the jar and broke the seal and poured out everything she had. There would be more later. This was for now.
This is not a new concept. In the 17th century, the French Jesuit Priest, Jean-Pierre de Caussade, wrote a work entitled The Sacrament of the Present Moment. And centuries later, this moment is no different than that one. He said that “the present moment holds infinite riches beyond your wildest dreams but you will only enjoy them to the extent of your faith and love…The will of God is manifest in each moment, an immense ocean which only the heart fathoms insofar as it overflows with faith, trust and love.”
Here…here is your moment. It’s never happened before. It will never be again. What extravagance can you bring to it? How can you truly be present in it? But remember…you are standing on holy ground. Here.
Grace and Peace….Here,