The Fifth Sunday in Lent, 2019

Lectionary: Isaiah 43:16-21; Philippians 3:4-14; John 12:1-8

Our Gospel reading today can be challenging, especially for us of the Church of Canada, because it resolutely refuses our general tendency to reduce the Christian faith into the language of ethics. The Christian must feed, clothe, and shelter the poor, and that this is a duty for us must always be remembered. Our constant failure to uphold and carry out this duty cannot be excused, and this failure isn’t just some unfortunate lapse—it is a sin.

But for us to understand that this is a sin, or even understand what sin is at all, requires us to first know what it means to be a servant of the living God, to know that justice is not in our possession; to know where our mission comes from and what our mission even actually is. It requires us to know the otherworldliness of God, the deep fractures of our world and our own selves, and to come to grasp with how deeply mired our best intentions are by the reality of sin. To be a Christian is, on one hand, to have the clarity of faith to truly say that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”[1] On the other, it is to have the existential self-understanding to truly know the constant tensions and hypocrisies within us. As St. Paul describes to us in terrifying psychological depth:

“I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. So then it is no longer I that do it, but sin which dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin which dwells within me.”[2]

To talk about “doing justice” without first talking about our sin isn’t just a problem because it hurtles us directly into hypocrisy. It is a problem because it reveals just how incapable we are of actually understanding what justice is and what it looks like. We must act, that much is undeniable, and we must act despite our imperfections and doubts in pursuit of justice. But all of this is for naught if we forget that the fundamental work of the Christian is the sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving. All the true works in our lives are only true because they are the fruits of our fear of God, for every good and perfect gift comes from above.[3]

If we connect this to our Gospel reading today, yes, I really am asking if we think, speak, and act like Judas Iscariot who spoke so loudly about his concern for the poor. Indeed, if that which anointed the feet of our Lord could have been sold for three hundred denarii to feed the poor, how many more could we feed by selling the Lord himself for thirty pieces of silver![4] And lest we feel tempted to use Judas as a convenient scapegoat, in the accounts of Sts. Matthew and Mark it is not only Judas who expresses his indignation for the “waste” of expensive ointment, but the disciples in general.[5] This is the implication we must contend with: it is the Church as a whole that expresses its indignation against Mary’s act of worship, and it is the Church as a whole that is rebuked by Christ to leave the pious woman alone who has done a beautiful thing for him.[6]

We might find Christ’s response to Judas offensive to our sensibilities, to have the image of the humble Christ be marred by what appears to be his enjoyment of a vain excess.[7] But this would be to surrender to a very cynical image of the world that is held captive by doctrines of scarcity, not plenitude; a “worldview” that calculates human actions as if life is a zero-sum game. Of course our resources are limited, be that money, time, or energy. We are mortal creatures. When Mary anointed the feet of Christ, she made a choice to do one thing against various other things. So why, then, did Christ defend her against the disciples? Partly, it might have been because he knew that Mary did this out of her love for him, but that alone can’t be the reason. We often do horribly stupid things out of “love”. Indeed, great violence has been done in the name of Christian faith. So how are we to understand Christ’s justification of Mary?

We cannot solve this problem with our own measures. Our mortal limitations prevent us from fulfilling all our duties at once, individually, and if we only have our own measure Judas’ critique rings uncomfortably true. The only one who can solve this problem is God, and what makes Mary’s actions just does not, ultimately, lie in Mary’s own intentions nor the beauty of her act. What makes it good is Christ, for in Christ we see the glory of God that is pure gratuity, an excess that oversaturates our broken world, a plenitude that refuses the zero-sum game. It is because our Lord is a creator who overwhelms the petty calculations of this world that Mary’s anointing of his feet did not come at the cost of feeding the poor. That this was not an either/or but a both/and does not come from Mary’s capacity, as if Judas’ objection can be replied to with strategies of shrewd financial management. No, that this is a both/and can only be because the anointed Christ is the Lord of plenty.

So who was made just at the dinner table? It was the woman on her knees anointing the feet of Christ, not the self-righteous men rebuking her apparent extravagancy. Indeed, it is only Mary, not any of the Apostles, who washes the feet of Christ before Maundy Thursday. It is only Mary, by anointing the feet of the Saviour who raised her brother Lazarus from the dead, that perfumed the body of Christ for his burial before the Crucifixion. She gave sacrifice to her utmost, without any desire for return, for the Lord who will sacrifice his entirety for no return other than our salvation.

There is, however, another lesson to be taken from Mary’s ointment. Matthew and Mark recounts to us the woman pouring the ointment on the head of Jesus, but Luke and John show us the woman anointing Christ’s feet. In the former we see the woman symbolically proclaiming Jesus as the Anointed One, the Messiah. In the latter she is glorifying the lowly. For insofar Christ is the head of the Church and we are all members of his mystical body, the anointment of the feet of Christ is the honouring of the most heavily burdened.[8] For God, in his incommensurable justice, adjusted the body and invested greater honour to the what is treated as inferior.[9] What was anointed with the head? It was not the face, the proud façade of the Church that demands such obsessive pampering. It was not even the hands, the priestly members of the body that minister the sacraments and wash the body. It was the feet that were anointed like the head, the lowermost as the uppermost, and by the honouring of these members we are all honoured together.[10]

And honour the poor we must. Our duty is not only to feed, clothe, and house the poor, as if our responsibility is only to ensure their mere survival and expect their thanks for our largesse. No, we are also called to honour them, to recognize and uphold their dignity, to beautify them.  It is our duty to aid their needs in all its human complexity. The poor cannot live on bread alone, and it is our responsibility to tend the fires of the sacred spaces, for there is nothing more beautiful we can offer than the beauty of the worship of God in all its gratuity, in all its solemnity. To give thanks and praise to God and to care for the poor coincide. They are one. Both the feet and the head are to be anointed without reservation. We do not glorify God if we do not glorify the poor, and we cannot glorify the poor without glorifying God, for in the visage of the poor is the icon of Christ.[11]

It is true that we cannot do all things, even though we are responsible to attend to all things to the utmost of our abilities. But we must go forward with trust in the mysterious designs of God, to imperfectly express in our own lived lives the overwhelming plenitude of our Lord. So we must pour out ourselves, together, because none of us can do this alone, to not only feed but also anoint the poor. And none of this can be done without giving wholly to the God who gives all things, who gave all that we have.

So, will we be like Judas, who denigrated beauty in the name of humility? No one is fooled by our carefully manicured projections of rugged simplicity, authentic like ripped jeans in a designer store. We can only look at our own plate and give ourselves truthfully to both God and neighbour. We can do nothing other than to trust in God and bow to our neighbours, for nothing we do is of any worth if it is not the will of God, not done in charity. And we will always fall short, because we are captive to sin. So we must pray:

O Lord, save thy people: and bless thine heritage.
Govern them: and lift them up forever.
Day by day: we magnify thee;
And we worship thy Name: ever world without end.
Vouchsafe, O Lord: to keep us this day without sin.
O Lord, have mercy upon us: have mercy upon us.
O Lord, let thy mercy lighten upon us: as our trust is in thee.
O Lord, in thee have I trusted: let me never be confounded.

Amen.

 

[1] Psalm 111:10

[2] Romans 7:15-20

[3] James 1:17

[4] Matthew 26:14-16

[5] Matthew 26:8; Mark 14:4

[6] Matthew 26:11; Mark 14:6

[7] Matthew 19:21; Mark 10:21; Luke 18:22

[8] Colossians 1:18; 1 Corinthians 12:27

[9] 1 Corinthians 12:22-24

[10] 1 Corinthians 12:26

[11] Matthew 25:40-45

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