Mary, Jesus, & Intimacy
Today’s gospel reading is one that pastors, especially men, want to dance around. It is an uncomfortable scene between Mary and Jesus. We haven’t always been comfortable talking about intimacy. And it’s pretty intimate to imagine Mary washing Jesus’ feet with perfume using her hair. We can talk about cultural transgressions, that Mary as a woman should not be touching Jesus’ feet, as a man, so intimately. And that Jesus would allow this behaviour as the Messiah is also uncomfortable.
I’ve heard it described more often from women colleagues that too often we overlook Mary as a remarkable leader. In place of what came to be a Puritanical disdain for indulging in the body and luxuries like perfume, Mary doesn’t hold back. She reveals that bodies are something to be celebrated, including Jesus’ body. The perfume overflows, the smells fill the room, there is hair caressing feet. At least on one read, the scene is a little hot and heavy and we’re not always sure what to do with this interpretation.
And yet the scene is profoundly human. Jesus doesn’t come across as purely instrumentally concerned that expensive perfume is lavishly poured upon his feet. He is not embarrassed by this excessive gift. He doesn’t make excuses to the disciples. Instead he receives this gift with the generosity with which it is given. He indulges in luxury in an intimate exchange with Mary.
Judas: virtue signalling
It’s no surprise that the exchange with Judas doesn’t go well. He’s not thrilled about Mary’s wastefulness of the perfume and Jesus indulging in this gift. Annalise, a student at a recent Inclusive Christians gathering at UVic offered a new interpretation of Judas in this passage. At least an interpretation I hadn’t heard before. She said that Judas is the quintessential ally who is virtue signalling. In the context of the story he is an ally of the poor. But his complaint about the cost of the perfume is virtue signalling, wanting to look good in front of others.
Virtue signalling in today’s context is when we post message on social media to look good on a certain issue but then fail to follow through with action. This happens both with individuals and also institutions. We think about banks which will talk about their diversity programs, who say they fund Indigenous reconciliation for example. And then we learn they are also a major investor in a pipeline project being used to divide and conquer the Wet’suwet’en nation for example.
Virtue signalling is something we need to be careful about doing as churches as well. We want to make sure that our words and our actions are consistent.
One opportunity where we can step up is when marginalized neighbours feel unsafe. For example there was a news story in the TC this week that a Punjabi Sikh family here in Saanich has been receiving notes with racist threats on their vehicle windshields since this past January. It sounds utterly terrifying that a Canadian family targeted because of race and possibly dress has been made afraid simply to live in their home. Some of the threats included phrases related to white supremacy.
For those unfamiliar Church of the Cross is also located in Saanich, the largest of the municipalities in Greater Victoria. Given the Saanich connection they are our neighbours. Someone in the wider area is making them feel unsafe. Given our relative privilege as Christians it’s an opportunity for us to build relationships and trust with the Sikh community. We can also send out messaging on social media and on our church sign, which has a real impact, while also building relationships with our neighbours.
The skills I learned in Virginia is that neighbours protect neighbours. Too often we expect the police to solve community problems where realistically they may not have the resources available to track down an individual leaving notes at unexpected times and places. As a congregation and as neighbours in Saanich and Greater Victoria, we can point to a different way. Saying publicly there is no place for hate, no place for racism, creates a buffer of safety. Knowing that neighbours are actively supporting and willing to show up to protect neighbours who feel threatened.
Perhaps it is this kind of freely giving of gifts that infuriates Judas and others like him so much. Judas wants Jesus to act according to an economy Judas approves. An economy that isn’t overly generous and certainly not wasteful with gift giving. Instead from Mary and Jesus we learn there is space for abundant life and generosity. Offers to support neighbours aren’t made in order to get something back in return, but grounded in love. In the same way Mary doesn’t measure the amount of perfume she gives but rather lets it overflow.
God’s abundance is without bounds. And we are invited into this economy of grace. And it will surprise people when we act in this way. When we state publicly and plainly that we oppose racism, that we are actively anti-racist and seek to live this out, we’ll get pushback. People will say, “Who do you think you are?” And we won’t exactly have answers that will satisfy naysayers either. Because an honest answer is we are followers of Jesus, seeking to live is God desires us to live. This will make some people even angrier. That we would act outside the accepted norms of society which is keep your head down and look out for yourself and your family and friends, but no further.
I mention these potential responses so you are not surprised when you hear people respond out of anger or frustration when we or others take a principled stand based upon the gospel.
Perfume covers what stinks
Returning to the text, Jesus accepts the gift of perfume because he wants to cover over what stinks. Traditionally nard, the perfume Mary uses, was used in purification rites for the dead. This would have been a strong-scented perfume used on bodies before embalming. The perfume would mask the smell while the family mourned the death of a loved one.
In our Lenten journey Jesus knows we have enough in the world that smells. He knows we need to cover over the smell of war, the smell of racist threats, the smell of transphobia, the smell of sickness and death. And he does this not to conceal the very real suffering, but as a balm, to comfort us. Sometimes don’t we do the same with one another? We cannot change the outcome of a diagnosis or a treatment plan but we can lift one another up in prayer. We cannot change the threat of violence single-handedly but we can reach out to neighbours and tell them we’re here for them. These seemingly small acts matter very much.
And I think we are already doing many of these acts when we rise to the occasion with the work of council, boards, committees, and each of the ways in which we are engaged in church and wider community. I think about the ways in which God is already at work in our midst.
I leave you with the question: How is Jesus anointing you with perfume? How is God showing you with grace in the midst of difficulties? Know that God is with you and you are loved. Amen.