They gathered that night around the table, and it wasn’t just any table or any place. It was the table of dear friends in Bethany. There was Martha, who had first welcomed Jesus into their home. And Mary, who had wanted nothing but to sit at Jesus feet and study. These sisters had sent a message to Jesus when their brother Lazarus was ill. “Come, quickly.” But by the time he arrived, Lazarus had been dead for days and a stench filled the air. “Lazarus, come out,” Jesus said, and the dead man rose.
From that moment on, the religious authorities planned to kill both Jesus and Lazarus. Jesus had withdrawn, but now he had returned on his way towards Jerusalem, and the disciples who followed him were nervous. Some, like Peter, had tried to dissuade Jesus, surely there was another way, because this path would lead to suffering and death. But back to Bethany, and back to this house, Jesus led.
It was the custom, that dinner guests would have had their feet washed by a servant upon arrival. Such a lowly job was not required of every servant because it involved touching the dirty, decay and refuse of life. And following the foot washing, guests would have been given oils to anoint their heads.
On that night, in Bethany, Mary knelt. She not only bathed Jesus feet, she anointed them with pure nard, not just an ounce, a whole pound, a year’s wages. She had been saving this for his burial. She could see and claim his death. Anointing someone who had died was a loving prayer, passing them from human hands into God’s hands. Mary finished with wiping Jesus’ feet not with a towel, but with her own hair.
As I gazed at the picture by Lauren Wright Pittman,[i] of Mary anointing Jesus feet, I noticed the addition of a third eye. A third eye often symbolizes wisdom or intuition, it is the joining of the heart and the head, often non-verbal. It reflects a deeper way of seeing, made stronger through prayer and meditation.
Mary saw what Peter and the other disciples could not—that Jesus’ reaching out to all, even the untouchables, healing, teaching, forgiving, empowering, resurrecting–made him a threat to the religious and civil authorities. And Jesus would continue anyway. Mary saw that she could do nothing to stop Jesus’ upcoming death. She leaned in and claimed his inevitable death. In the place that many would see only depravity . . . she poured extravagance. The body that would be broken, she held tenderly. Before the stench of death could start, she saturated him with sweet perfume. In an encroaching sense of doom, her courage and strength became incarnational. “Yea though I walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, I fear no evil, for thou art with me..” Love to love to love. Hands to feet to hair.
Judas cried, “Foul. This is all wrong.” Some would say that Judas, like Peter, fully believed Jesus would not suffer and die, but that instead God would send an army of angels and sweep Jesus into glory and the disciples right along beside. Perhaps that’s what his betrayal was all about—a desperate cry to God, “Come now before it’s too late.” Perhaps Judas was the one who felt betrayed. Judas came up with something as a good cover for his objection to Mary’s action—give the money to the poor. Jesus said, “Yes, of course do that always. And, also, you will not always have me.” Judas could not see what was happening. He missed the flow of beauty and power.
Last year for Mother’s Day, my friend Alexa Gilmour put on her church sign, ‘hold someone who grieves.’ Look around, be present to who and what the world might not see. Lean in. Each week Alexa comes up with an idea for faith in action for the sign. The church she pastors, Windermere United Church in Toronto, is too small to afford their own sign, so they had been renting one and the sign owner would change the message weekly as directed. This was good and fine, until Alexa wanted to post good wishes for Ramadan for Muslim neighbors, and celebration of Pride week with the LGBTQIA+ community, just as they had also reached out to Jewish and Black neighbors on special holidays. The sign owner cited Christian faith and scripture as reason not to post that. Alexa pushed back, citing Christian faith and scripture. The owner removed the sign in the middle of the night for the ‘church’s protection,’ due to an unknown city ordinance. Deeply grieved and passionately called, Alexa and her church kept going anywhere. They filed a human rights violation and shared their story. Neighbors who don’t belong to the church now have joined members to raise money to purchase a church sign so that messages of love and inclusion can continue to be proclaimed to all.[ii]
Arif Virani, a member Parliament and former Ugandan Asian refugee and human rights lawyer, rose to the floor in the House of Commons this week and proclaimed that Alexa and her church’s efforts at fighting the tide of hate and standing up for the rights of all fill him with hope.[iii] Alexa reflects, “There are no small acts . . .my heart believes the impossible is possible in large measure because of my church’s willingness to put their faith into practice.” They are willing to see and come alongside those who are hurting, those attacked, those most vulnerable.
As Joyce Rupp wrote—
Everywhere there are people who have no one to be with them during their most difficult time. These people live in our families, belong to our congregations, work beside us, and dwell in our neighborhoods. They need the strength and empathy of others when they prepare to have life-threatening surgery, struggle to overcome addictions, face depression shoving them toward suicide, wrestle with financial woes, or develop other situations with troubling consequences. What must it be like to be a homeless person or an immigrant family and have no one for an advocate? Imagine the suffering of persons treated with disdain for religious beliefs, color of skin, ethnicity or sexual orientation. All these persons can benefit greatly from having someone.[iv]
Often, we feel inadequate, unable to stop what is happening, and unsure of what to say. Sometimes we fear our hearts will break and tears flow if we get to close. To notice, and be compassionate, to just ‘be there’ is holy work. We join our broken hearts with God’s broken heart, let our tears mingle with God’s tears.
Mary, the mother of Jesus, and a small group held vigil by Jesus as he hung on the cross. Peter and Judas and others fled. From the time when Mary said ‘yes’ to God’s invitation from the angel Gabriel, she knew she could draw on holy power. Weary and worn from the long vigil, heartbroken over what she could not change, she reached within and around her to draw on Unceasing Love. Both Marys’ ‘yes’ inspire us to stay with the pain and continue to be present, and draw deeply, no matter how powerless or hopeless we feel.
God’s compassionate presence is always attuned to hurting ones. God’s listening ear is bent toward the cries of the wounded. God’s heart of love fills with tears for the suffering. May our inward eye see that we are not alone. That we are part of all of life, and each one’s joy and sorrow is our joy and sorrow, and ours is theirs. May we draw strength from this inner communion. May we daily recommit to being a compassionate presence with all who struggle with life’s pain.[v]
That night in Bethany, Mary, Martha, and Lazarus gathered with the energy that would have come from being together again, and with the heartache of knowing this would be their last time. There was nothing they could do to stop Jesus’ journey. Mary also saw that she could kneel, and wash away the refuse, and pour the finest, and enfold Jesus with compassion. Sure, the criticism and pushback came. Nevertheless, the memory and fragrance would linger with Jesus through his death and beyond. Even on the cross, Jesus was held in the Embrace of Love. Mary of Bethany and Mary Mother of Jesus, spoke with actions beyond words that encompassed him.
Sooner or later, we are all called to companion someone or a group who is suffering. Discipleship isn’t always easy or safe, nor does it come with directions. And yet, with Mary the Mother of Jesus, and Mary of Bethany, we attune our third eye, joining our hearts and heads, our treasures and our tears with God’s. We draw deeply from the abundant flow of Enduring Love, Beauty and Power. Again, and again, we say, ‘yes.’
[i] “Anointed,” by Lauren Wright Pittman, A Sanctified Art LLC, asancitifiedart.org
[ii] To learn more and to give, https://www.canadahelps.org/en/charities/windermere-united-church/campaign/spiritual-exercisecommunity-sign/?fbclid=IwAR04UE_GoQNDMzaUTiXjmmyq7CdxQlKfrUARxV7kmgmB2PXQBl69Ohwxb_Q
[iii] Video of Arif Virani’s statement, https://www.facebook.com/ArifViraniMP/videos/vb.1451700638390004/2336907202998118/?type=2&theater
[iv] “News from Joyce Rupp,” e-newsletter, Reflections– April 2019.
[v] Based on the prayer of Joyce Rupp, “The Heart of Compassion,” p. 131, Your Sorrow is My Sorrow.