Mary took a liter of costly perfumed oil made from genuine aromatic nard and anointed the feet of Jesus and dried them with her hair: the house was filled with the fragrance of the oil. Then Judas the Iscariot, one of his disciples, and the one who would betray him, said, “Why was this oil not sold for three hundred days’ wages and given to the poor?” He said this not because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief and held the money bag and used to steal the contributions. So Jesus said “Leave her alone. Let her keep this for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”John 12: 3-8
Psychoanalysis teaches that we construct our personalities, what we might call our “character armor,” as a defense against our experience of loss. There is, perhaps, no greater human suffering than that of loss, than of facing the truth of the fact that everyone and everything that we love, including ourselves, will die. So, much of what we take to be our lives, to be our very selves, is constituted by our means of evading and forgetting the reality of loss and death.
As a child who had just turned six years old, I was, for all the illusion that the adults were creating around me, unable to distance at all from the truth of my grandmother’s dying upstairs in her room. Without really understanding what was happening, I knew that she, my closest companion for most of my life, was not there and was unable to be with me. So I, the usually conforming and appeasing good boy, could only act out and express the sadness and hurt I was experiencing. As I did so, I received from those around me the sense that it was my feelings and my self-expression that were hurting my grandmother. And so, I began to learn quite young how to distance from the pain of loss.
So successful was I at this that I came to be seen either as mature or even as cold in difficult moments. Yet, at the same time, I was most attracted to stories and films that expressed pathos and sadness. I would actually readily well up with tears and feel a physical pain in my heart as the characters in the novel or film suffered the grief of loss. As this Holy Week begins we are invited to come close to the reality of our human condition as lived out to the full by Jesus, and by those, primarily women, who remained close to him throughout. Our early experiences of loss sometimes leave us with the mistaken perspective that we cannot bear the reality of a distinctively and full human life, that the reality of death makes it impossible for us to survive while remaining awake and aware of the depth of life. So, we develop a character armor that allows us to remain at a distance from the truth of what we and others are always going though.
In today’s gospel story we see the battle we are constantly living out represented in the persons of Mary and Judas. Mary is not frightened by the impending death of Jesus. To the contrary, she brings herself as close to him as possible and wastefully, to Judas, anoints his feet with the precious ointment, precisely because he will soon not be with them. Judas, on the other hand, distances from the personal encounter and moment by means of hyper-rationality. He couches his distancing in terms of care for the poor, but the gospel writer reminds us that it is not care that is motivating him. Judas lives in the world of common sense, a sense that maximizes control, personal gain, and profit. He lives at home in such a world because he is distant from reality, from the world of love and loss.
From the perspective of the defensive shell that we take to be our character, the suffering of love is wasteful, as Mary is with the ointment. As I pre-reflectively determined at the age of 6, it is just too painful to be close to a life and a love that is temporary and passing. So, I learned to be like Judas, in justifying my fear and distance from life in terms of caring for others. I would readily reduce caring to doing things for or taking care of others. I would “minister” to them but from a safe distance, creating an identity of a “good person,” but one who would not have to suffer the loss that loving presence and commitment entailed.
Mary behaves in a way that is culturally unacceptable. She fails to live within the norms that define appropriate and refined behavior. The expensive oil with which she anoints Jesus’ feet is a symbol of her heart which is likewise being poured out in love for him. So, the house is filled with the fragrance of the oil, the atmosphere of her love. We learn early on in life the socially constructed appropriate limits of our human experience. These are, of course, necessary for the smooth running of society, yet they also readily become the strictures of our most distinctively human experience and expression. The structures contribute to a sense of permanence that allows us to live as if we are not all to die. So, in our self protection we also become aliens to the mystery and beauty of life.
So what Mary does is jarring on all fronts: socially, emotionally, and relationally. In a foreshadowing of the gift of Jesus to the world, she pours out not only the oil but herself. She washes his feet as he will wash the feet of his disciples. She abandons all control and calculation, wastefully preparing his beloved body for burial. And for a moment, the “house,” their world, is filled with the aroma of the oil and the spirit of love.
I have a friend who often speaks of our lives as occurring on two tracks. On track one is the readily recognizable life of management, control, task-orientation, and meaning making. On track two is the reality of what we are all going through as we live out our lives on track one. It is our sharing in what the author of John’s gospel calls “eternal life.” The aroma that fills the house as Mary anoints Jesus’ feet is the life of heart and spirit, the way of love. This life occasionally breaks through into consciousness, despite all our efforts to suppress it. Yet, it is usually momentary because inevitably the voice of Judas in us will force us back to the world of “common sense,” of our socially constructed reality.
This Holy Week perhaps we can ask ourselves how we need to become more wasteful. Will we stay at a distance from the memorial we celebrate, or will be dare to open our hearts and to come close to the mystery in love. To do this, we need first to overcome our distance from our own hearts. We need to dare to become aware of what we are going through, and through this growth in awareness of what our world is going through. For this remembrance of Jesus’ passion, death, and resurrection is not only a remembrance of the past but a key to the present. We are able not only to face what is but to come close to it and embrace it in love. Yes, the love will always contain pain as well as joy, but we need not fear that we are unable to bear the pain.
The Resurrection of Jesus signals to us that through the suffering of our humanity, and even through our death, there is yet deeper life. At every moment we are torn between the heart of Mary and the sense of Judas. We avoid the possibility of love because we fear what it will cost us. We think, as did the disciples, that the cross is the end. Mary does not count the cost of the ointment, she only knows that she longs to give Jesus everything she has and is. It is Judas and not Mary who, at the level of ordinary life, makes sense. But Mary knows, as Blaise Pascal said, that “the heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing.” For us, to dare to come close to Jesus these days is to come back to life.
In John 13:1 we hear of Jesus that, “Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.” It is in and for love of a world that will deny and crucify him and that will continue through its whole existence to fail to love each other and our common home that Jesus will give himself all the way to death. Jesus had every reason not to continue loving to the end. As do we. As Mary anoints the feet of Jesus, she is not thinking about how humiliated she may feel to be associated with a criminal, or how disappointed his death might make her, or how abandoned and lonely her world will be without him. Rather, she follows the impulse of love that compels her to spend all she has on him and to prepare him for his burial. In her generous outpouring, she, no doubt, helps Jesus to love to the end by being willing to suffer all that her open heart will experience. This is what we have the power to offer each other.
After the Funeral
Driving the thruway past the houses of the dead
and two miles west of that exit, the sky plumped with rain,
the girl and I listened to a downloaded book
tell us about another time, more gone than this one.
Does everything seen from a distance look pretty?
The deadly lightening, the southern town
where in 100 or so more pages a man will hang from a tree?
No man yet. The tree unmarked
I don’t want to hear anymore, the girl said,
Something bad is going to happen.
Nearing home the sky turned biblical, pink and bruised purple,
half a rainbow pushing up like a plow handle broken off
while in the west more dark rain gathered so dense it seemed
anvil enough to hurt the car should we drive into it.
We drove into it, then out the other side
and finally up our own gravelly road and into the yard.
The dog bounded to the door
We carried the bags from the car.