Scripture Reading: John 12: 1-11
Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, ‘Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii* and the money given to the poor?’ (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, ‘Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.’ When the great crowd of the Jews learned that he was there, they came not only because of Jesus but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. So the chief priests planned to put Lazarus to death as well, since it was on account of him that many of the Jews were deserting and were believing in Jesus.
Holy Week has begun. We have walked this road to the cross throughout this Lenten season and now it is upon us. Most of us don’t really know what it is that we’re supposed to do with this week. We have gone through this season hearing its call to repentance, to emptying, to looking at things differently. But, still, the ending is beginning to loom bigger than we imagined it would be. What is it, exactly, that we’re supposed to do this week?
Henri Nouwen tells us that “passion is a kind of waiting—waiting for what other people are going to do.”[i] He claims that all of Jesus’ life leading up to this week—all of the teaching, all of the healing, all of the miracle-making, the welcoming of sinners, the turning of tables in front of the saints, every action that was part of who Jesus was ends in this week of passion. And the reason is that, as Nouwen says, “All action ends in passion because the response to our action is out of our hands. That is the mystery of work, the mystery of love, the mystery of friendship, the mystery of community…And that is the mystery of Jesus’ love. God reveals [Godself] in Jesus as the one who waits for our response.”[ii] This is the week when Jesus stops doing and waits to be handed over. This is the week when Jesus waits on others.
We are not used to a Christ who does nothing. We are, rather, more comfortable when Jesus is showing us how to do what we’re supposed to do as followers. We are not accustomed to such a passive Christ. I looked up the word “passive” in an etymological dictionary. The root is the Latin passiuus. And then, surprisingly enough, it says “See Passion.” The etymological root of passion, the term that we use to describe Jesus’ suffering journey to the cross, is the Latin passionem, or suffering. And it says “See Passive.” The two words are related. The “Passion”, this time of suffering and being “handed over”, is a movement from planned and intentional action to no longer being in control. All of Jesus’ actions are accomplished. It is finished. It is a time of waiting—waiting for others’ response.
In our lectionary Gospel reading for this Holy Monday, we find this passive Jesus. He visits the home of friends, the home of those whom he had served, those for whom he had done things. And, it says, they give a dinner for him. Jesus is the guest of honor. After all the doing, after all the action, after all the stuff, he now spends time with friends. And they serve him. And then the passage tells us that Mary takes a pound of costly perfumed nard, breaks the seal, and lavishly pours it onto Jesus’ feet. Then as the oil runs down his feet and begins to drip to the floor, she wipes his feet with her hair. The whole house is filled with this overwhelming fragrance.
Well, the disciples just couldn’t leave it alone. What in the world was she doing? Here is this man who has worked for years to bring peace and justice to the world, to heal others, to end poverty and oppression and you waste this oil by pouring it out on him! That oil could have been sold. Things could have been done with that money! We could have done great ministry with what you just poured on his feet! But you have wasted it! You have squandered it!
Then Jesus responds. “Leave her alone,” he says. You see, she gets it. She understands. I do not have long to be with you. She knows where I am going. And she responds. This woman loves Jesus. In fact, she loves Jesus so much that she defies the expected and instead pours out the abundance of her life and anoints Jesus for his burial. This is not the time to talk about budgets or the ways things are normally done. This is the time of Jesus’ waiting and her response. As she anointed Jesus, Mary entered Jesus’ Passion and understood what it meant to have a personal relationship with Christ.
There are those in our society that would describe that breakthrough as being “born again”. But that phrase, commonplace and probably overused and misused as it is today, was not even around over a hundred years ago. Instead, the words that were used to describe this coming into who Jesus is was to say that one was “seized by the power of a great affection.” Isn’t that an incredible phrase—to be “seized by the power of a great affection”? You see, we 21st century folks usually think we have it all figured out. We know what we’re called to do to make disciples of Jesus Christ. We live our lives as best we can within the framework of what God wants us to do. And we do what we can for others by reaching out in the name of Christ. All of that is wonderful. But are we truly “seized by the power of a great affection”? Why do you think Jesus did everything that he did while he was on this earth? Was it just to show us what it is we’re supposed to do? No, Jesus was more than merely an exemplary human being put here for us to emulate. Jesus came to reveal God’s love, to show us how much God loves each of us and how much God desires us, to make known once and for all the affection that God has for all of God’s Creation and for us as children of God. Jesus was God made known, Emmanuel.
There is a story from the Sufi mystical tradition of a disciple that comes to an elder for direction.
“Where shall I find God?” the disciple asked the elder. “God is with you,” the Holy One replied. “But if that is true,” the disciple asked, “why can I not see this Presence?” “Because you are like the fish who, when in the ocean, never notices the water.” It is not that God is not with us; it is that we are unaware of that incredible Presence.[iii]
When we finally stop doing what we think we should be doing and listen for that which God is calling us to be we will become aware of that extraordinary Presence that is God. And in that becoming, we enter the Christ-life.
In our faith understanding, the Sacrament of Baptism is the beginning of our life as a Christian, a new life in Christ, the beginning of a journey toward oneness with God, toward the life of Christ. The waters of Baptism remind us of God’s ever-Presence in our lives, of God’s claim on us, and of the great love that God has for us that was revealed in Christ. It is sacramental because it is God’s love made visible for us. Through this sacrament, we enter this journey with God.
In much the same way, Mary poured the oil upon Jesus. The act was sacramental. Mary understood that love. She entered that love. Indeed, she was “seized by the power of a great affection”. And in pouring the oil, she entered Jesus’ Passion. She became part of Jesus’ journey to the cross.
In Baptism, God uses water to make God’s love visible to us. And as Mary poured the oil on Christ, she made her love visible to God. And, do you remember your basic chemistry lesson? If you pour oil into the water, the oil is raised to the top. Oil and water…God uses both to make this incredible love visible to us. And immersed in that love, we will find ourselves “seized by the power of a great affection.”
This is the week when we come to the end of all our doing. This is the week when we walk with Christ through betrayal and suffering and last suppers and final endings. This is the week when we finally realize that we can do nothing else. And on that final day, as the passive Christ is handed over, there is nothing more for him to do other than wait for our response. Who will follow me? Who will come to me with all your misery and your sins, with all your trouble and your needs, and with all your longings to be loved. Who will follow me? Who will hand over their lives just as I have done that you too might be raised to new life? Because it is then that the oil will be poured out for you in much the same way as you are immersed in the waters of your Baptism.
This week is not an easy one to walk. Sometimes we are still not sure what it is that we’re supposed to do. But this week is not about us; it is not about what we do or how we do it; this week is the week that we are called to be “seized by the power of a great affection”, to become one with Christ, to enter Christ’s suffering and passion and waiting, to make our very lives a sacramental journey. And as we come closer and closer to what seems to be a final ending, we will finally be aware that we are never really alone. God calls us. God is waiting for our response.
In the Name of the One who journeys with us to the Cross!
Grace and Peace,
[i] Henri J.M. Nouwen, “From Action to Passion”, in Bread and Wine: Readings for Lent and Easter (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books f/ Plough Publishing, 2003), 179-185.
[iii] Joan Chittister, There Is a Season (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1995), 14.