Who is Mary, and just what is she doing in our Gospel this morning? I keep wondering about this little scene; Mary anointing Jesus’ feet with expensive ointment, drying them with her hair and then getting in ‘trouble’ because they are not behaving the way they should; they are not caring for the poor enough. They are not behaving in the way other people think they should. Wilna Gafney, one of my favourite theologians, has a great story about growing up in a church community that saw itself as a sort of Noah’s Ark; a place of refuge and safety from a dangerous world. The problem of course with any small space with lots of animals, is that there’s a lot of noise and a lot of shit. And I’d like to use that lens, lots of noise and crap, as a way of thinking about a possible interpretation of our Gospel story this morning.
To be clear, this is not Mary of ‘Magdala’, she is Mary the Magdala, the Tower. If Peter is understood to be “The Rock”, Mary is the Tower. Mary is the one who witnesses first hand the resurrection of their brother Lazarus a few verses ago. Mary is the one who witnesses first hand the resurrection of Jesus, their “Rabbouni”, “Lord” in Aramaic Mary is the disciple who actually understands who Jesus is. And from their vantage point as Tower, they show us the way. They see what needs to be done, they see who they and all of us need to be. What they and all us are called to do.
And who are we to be, what are we to do? We are to plug into the Divine. Connect yourself, body and soul to Love, Mercifulness, Grace, The One. Simply doing good works, simply being kind to others is fine, but real transformation, for us individually and collectively is when we engage with the world from within this connection to the Love that is the foundation of the universe. Why is this connection so important?
Without our connection to this Love, like Judas, we start judging; I’d have done it this way, or you should do it that way, or you are not like me, or I’ll take communion from this one, but not from that one. Judas represents virtually all of us in church and the world out there. I don’t know about you, but I am certainly not able to connect with the Divine 24/7, to be able to take all I own, all I know, to love Love with a Capital L with abandon, like Mary does. And so, I a more likely to be like Judas here, trusting that I know what being a follower of Jesus is all about. Completely connecting with the Divine is Paul’s point in the letter to the Philippians, “I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” (Phil 3:8) Judas, you and I will default to the old ways, the habits, the reactions, the complexes of our
lives without this connection. And friends this has taken me most of a lifetime to even begin glimpse; it is only by completely plugging into Love with a Capiltal L that we can hope to bring about real transformation. The Star Wars stories have it at least partially right; trust the Force. And, connecting to Love with a Capital L with abandon, is very, very difficult, there is a lot of noise and crap around and within us that keeps us from that holy signal. And I think we can see clues in what Mary is doing and being in this scene about how we can move ourselves through the noise and crap towards that signal. To get there, I’d like to use what Wilna Gafney calls a ‘sanctified imagination.’ This is a view of the text in relationship with the imagination, used by African American preachers. Its similar in some ways to rabbinic midrash, where we imagine a context around the story we hear in the text. And to begin, I want to stress that in my sanctified imagination, Mary is signifying an everyperson; they are not representing women, or showing us how women are to behave, they are showing us how each and everyone of us, regardless of where we are on the gender spectrum how to behave. And for that reason, I refer to Mary as
they/them, in this scene. Mary is the Tower showing us the way for each of us to move through the crap and noise to get to the signal of Love with a Capital L.
First, Mary the everyperson is silent. Listening for God requires that we be quiet. If I’m talking, I’m not listening. Which says a lot about sermons!
Next Mary is serving something greater than themselves. Their act of anointing Jesus’ feet invites each of us into acts of service. I am reminded of the brilliant essay by Rachel Ramen about the difference between fixing, helping and serving. Fixing and helping are both hierarchical. If I think you need to be fixed, or even helped, I presuppose that I am somehow better than you. I imagine Judas thinks he is helping, or fixing? Service in contrast is about humbling supporting each other, raising each other up, being compassionate with each other.
And then, Mary dries Jesus’ feet with their hair. Let’s wonder what drying feet with hair might mean? Just think for a moment, in your sanctified imagination, what does their use of hair mean here? Think about the joke that Chris Rock told last Sunday at the Academy Awards about Jada Pinckett Smith’s alopecia. Think about the jokes we tell, especially as young people about baldness in men? My grandson will sometimes laugh and say, “Poppa has no hair!” Hair is important, it is an intimate identifier. There is a vulnerability required to touch another person’s hair, or to use one’s hair to touch another person. And so, in my sanctified imagination, I see that Mary’s hair represents a trusting vulnerability. The journey through the crap and noise to the signal of Love with a capital L is one of trusting vulnerability. I’m thinking of the collect for purity, “to You all hearts are open, all desires known, from You, no secrets are hid.” We are called to be completely open to the Divine. Mary using their hair represents trusting vulnerability between them and Love with a Capital L.
So three elements to connect us more clearly, through the crap and the noise with Love with a capital L. Silence. Service. Trusting vulnerability. And I hope you’ll indulge me with one more observation, turning my sanctified imagination
from Mary and towards Jesus in the last moments of this scene. Jesus says, responding to Judas’ judging comment, “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” (Jn 12:8) I’d like you to think for a moment, like we did with Mary’s drying feet with their hair, what might Jesus be getting at here?
In my wondering I came upon references to the playwright Kurt Vonnegut’s autobiographical collection of essays and at least one sermon, entitled, Palm Sunday. In the sermon from which the book gets its title, Vonnegut says: “[I] have seen so much un-Christian impatience with the poor encouraged by the quotation "For the poor always ye have with you."...If Jesus did in fact say that, it is a divine joke, well suited to the occasion. It says everything about hypocrisy and nothing about the poor. It is a Christian joke, which allows Jesus to remain civil to Judas, but to chide him for his hypocrisy all the same.
"Judas, don’t worry about it. There will still be plenty of poor people left long after I'm gone";....My own translation does no violence to the words in the Bible. I have changed their order some, not merely to make them into the joke the situation calls for but to harmonize them, too, with the Sermon on the Mount. The Sermon on the Mount suggests a mercifulness
that can never waver or fade.” Vonnegut, Kurt (1981). Palm Sunday. Dell. pp. 324–330. ISBN 0- 440-57163-4.
I for one love this image of Jesus as trickster, as using humour to push at Judas, and at all of us who judge what other people are doing and being, especially when what they are doing or being is not how we think it should be done or be. And that last line, “A mercifulness that can never waver or fade.” Might that in be in fact a way of thinking about Love with a capital L? Might that be what Mary is plugging into? Might that be what makes Christianity so difficult, an ethic that demands a mercifulness that can never waver or fade? What would be different in your life if you were able to be that merciful. What wouldbe different in our lives as a community if we were all able to be that merciful? What would be different in this city, province, country and the world if we all could, be that merciful with our selves and each other?
Mary the Tower gets it. Mary the Tower shows us that through silence, service and trusting vulnerabilty we can at least move through the noise and the crap in our lives to be transformed by Love with a Capital L, and “a mercifulness that can never waver or fade.”