Fifth Sunday of Lent: Isaiah 43:16-21; Psalm 126; Phillippians 3: 4b-14; John 12:1-8
When I came to live in Merced, the passages of scripture that speak of water in the desert took on new meaning. “I will make a way in the wilderness/ and rivers in the desert”, Isaiah promises us. The psalmist, in rejoicing that the Lord had restored the fortunes of Zion, adds, “Restore our fortunes, O Lord/
like the watercourses of the Negev”. All of this, Isaiah tells us, is because the Lord is “about to do a new thing”.
The Hebrew scriptures today are full of promise, of joy and celebration. It’s a bit odd to see this in the middle of Lent, but that’s what we’ve got. It is a reminder of the promise: after all, we know the end of the story. It is why Paul can celebrate “the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord”.
In the midst of all this, the gospel may seem a bit surprising. It is six days before the Passover, and Jesus is with Mary, Martha and Lazarus. Martha is serving. And then Mary, instead of sitting and listening as at other times, herself serves. She takes a pound of expensive perfume, puts it on Jesus’ feet, and wiped his feet with her hair. This gesture is both extravagant and erotic, expressing love and intimacy.
In the exchange that follows, when Judas suggests the value of the nard might more usefully given to the poor, Jesus pushes back. The perfume had been bought for the day of his burial, and he will not always be with them. Extravagance is not unreasonable with those who face death. I’ve known people with cancer diagnoses who immediately start crossing things off their bucket lists: they visit places they have always wanted to visit, or return to favorite places; they spend time with those they love. When time was finite, they used resources to celebrate life.
The gifts I have appreciated the most are the least expected: the ones that come not at birthdays or Christmas, but on a random day. And they are not always expensive, but they represent care and affection. That is true of all gifts: what resonates is the relationship they carry. As Mary anoints Jesus’ feet with nard, she tells him what he means to her.
Sometimes this passage is read with a focus on “You always have the poor with you”, suggesting we don’t need to do anything for the poor. But that misses the point. Mary celebrates Jesus’ presence, and takes something valuable to serve him, to care for his feet. That’s not wrong, we’re told. If we are to celebrate the new thing that God is doing, how do we do it? What are our extravagances?