At our house church meeting today we talked about John 12:1-8, the passage in which Mary anoints Jesus by pouring expensive nard oil on his feet and washing them with her hair. I'm a big fan of Mary for doing this.
Here we have Jesus sitting down to a meal with his disciples and his good friends Mary, Martha and Lazarus. It will be the last time this particular group gathers in such an intimate setting before the roller coaster ride of the Passion kicks in, because in this gospel the next scene is Jesus' entry into Jerusalem which we celebrate as Palm Sunday. Aside from the fact that this meal features none other than the Son of God and a man whom he raised from the dead, it is Mary who sets this scene apart.
When she pours the oil on Jesus' feet, Mary performs the first act of worship of Jesus as Lord. All Christians ought to sit up and take notice of this act, because Jesus fully approves of what Mary does, even defending her against Judas' sensible suggestion that the oil could have been sold and the proceeds given to the poor. ( even though Judas is discounted parenthetically for being a thief in the text, I actually think his suggestion to sell the oil and give the money to the poor is worth talking about at some point. This is an argument we have in churches today, and worth struggling over).
Mary transforms dinner among friends into a sacred happening. She gives all that she has, a very expensive amount of oil (equivalent to a year's salary!). Furthermore, she is physically committed to the act, getting down on her hands and knees to wipe the oil from his feet. This is an extremely intimate and worshipful posture, and in itself a costly act. It was not considered socially acceptable for women to loose their hair in public, so by doing this Mary opens herself to the possibility of ridicule and shame. Yet the rebel Jesus totally approves!
Do we not all hope that our worship will be seen as acceptable in God's sight? If we are to learn anything from Mary, it is that worship ought to be an event set apart, made special in some way, by the costly expenditure of oil in Mary's case, or perhaps by the use of precious time in ours. We also should put our whole bodies into the act of worship. We are used to engaging our eyes and ears in worship, but what about touch, smell, even taste? Are we fully caught up with acknowledging Jesus as Lord?
Coming back to Judas' criticism, Jesus is clear: the poor you always have with you, I am only with you for a time. We talked in our group about the great value of charitable organizations who care for the poor, sick, and lost. The Christian church is one such organization, but we are not only that. It is our worship, that sacred space that we make to honor God as the one divine being whom we adore, that sets us apart. It is the rituals we enact, the stories we tell, the candles we light, and the intention with which we draw near to God that mark us as chosen to serve and love God and the world. Mary recognized her opportunity to worship Jesus when he was there with them at the table. We also believe that whenever two or more are gathered in Jesus' name he will be there.