The following is Fr. Stuart’s reflection given at the community-wide Ecumenical Service this afternoon at Grace Church:
Don’t you love a good dinner party? I do. I love the food, the conversation, the atmosphere. I’ll even admit it that I love it when something a bit unusual happens, something unplanned. When some conversation gets started, or someone unexpected shows up, some subject broached and suddenly a space opens up beyond that sense of a polite yet shallow conversation and I think, “Well now….here we go!” Maybe I like a bit of a spectacle—so long as it’s not at my expense, of course!
Apparently times haven’t changed that much since first century Bethany. Only, the large group of Jews and others at that time came to the dinner party to see Lazarus, a person whom Jesus had raised from the dead—something that has never happened at any dinner party I have attended!
But it’s a wonderful setting for a story, with folks gathered around Jesus sharing an evening. So imagine their surprise when Mary, Lazarus’s sister, suddenly gets up takes a clay vessel, kneels down, and anoints Jesus’s feet with nard, using her hair. Also another thing that I haven’t experienced at a dinner party. I’m sad to say that no one has even brought nard…
Yet, there it is: this strange act that caught everyone off guard. There is no warning for it, apparently. I imagine them all reclining there on cushions, other standing around, when Mary slips out for a minute and comes back with the vessel, cracks it open and begins using her hair to wipe it on Jesus’ toes and feet. Nard is pungent, and you know it smelled up the whole room.
Judas doesn’t like it one bit, and we are given a glimpse of why we can’t trust Judas. He protests against what he sees as waste. But Jesus rebukes Judas, and we see this exchange:
“We should sell this and give the money to the poor.”
“Leave Mary alone. You always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me.”
Judas, honestly, seems sensible to me: who could deny that it would be “better” to deny extravagance and focus on our connection with all humanity, our call to show compassion to the least of those—to come to grips with our call to love and serve our neighbor. I think of Pope Francis here, and his constant refrain of wanting a “poor church” that focuses on serving the poor. What are we to do?
I think what is going on in the text is extraordinary. St. Mary of Bethany, to me, becomes the patron saint of the awareness of the holiness of a moment, the patron saint of the “here and now.”
Does she know that her time with Jesus is limited? Does she know, somehow, that the clock is ticking?
She seems to me to be taking advantage of the moment to express her adoration to Jesus, to offer all of herself at this moment of holy veneration. She kneels before the Lord and offers herself in a holy spectacle of devotion and oblation.
Of course, we are in the same place Mary is, aren’t we? The brilliance of how liturgical time works is that that time is now, this time is then, and all is bound up within God who reconciles all things to himself.
We too, are at a dinner party with Jesus. We too, are gathered there with friends we know—and friends we have not yet met.
We too have limited time with Jesus. We too know the clock is ticking…
What do we need to say to Jesus?
How do we feel compelled, convicted, to embody our piety?
What do we need to do? What acts of devotion are we led to show to the Lord?
And, what is inhibiting us from expressing it?
How can we move beyond mere spectacle to a sense of the Here and Now of God’s Presence in our lives?
Because the time is drawing nigh.