How many of you own dogs? How many of you regard your dog as one of your closest companions? Dogs meet this need for companionship for many in an age when loneliness has reached epidemic proportions.
What we can say about dogs we can extend to pets generally. In a 2019 study, 80 percent of pet owners said their pets helped them combat their loneliness. According to researchers, “when it comes both to pet-owners and non-pet owners, 85 per cent of respondents believe interaction with a companion animal can help reduce loneliness and 76 per cent affirm that human-animal interactions can help address social isolation.” In a recent poll conducted by the University of Michigan, almost 90 per cent of older pet owners believed animals improved their lives and made them feel loved.
What can we conclude from these findings?
On one level, we can say that having a pet is good for most people. Consider that a pet gives us non-judgmental, unconditional acceptance. We can pour out our affection on our pet without fear of rejection, misunderstanding, or criticism. With our pets we can be ourselves. And our pet even returns our affection. We feel that our pet appreciates us.
But on another level, does not our affection for our pets point beyond itself to a need in our hearts, a need for genuine connection with others, even with God? This kind of connection is always more complex, and always fraught with more difficulties, and for this reason more uncommon. And yet our hearts long for this kind of connection, and will not be satisfied until they find it.
Our gospel lesson for today portrays this deep connection that our hearts crave in the figure of Mary of Bethany.
We have seen her before, together with her sister Martha and their brother Lazarus. They are close friends to Jesus. In fact, earlier the Gospel of John tells us explicitly that Jesus loved them.
We learn about their relationship on the occasion of a great trial the two sisters underwent. Their brother Lazarus had been ill. They sent for Jesus to come, but he arrived only after a long delay. By the time he finally did arrive, Lazarus had already died. But Jesus challenged the two sisters to hold on to their faith. He promised to raise from the dead the corpse of their brother Lazarus, already decomposing. And they believed without faltering.
After raising Lazarus from the dead, Jesus posed an even greater threat to the status quo than before. The religious leaders were even more determined to kill him than before. He therefore withdrew to a region north of Jerusalem, near Bethel.
But as Passover drew near, he set out towards Jerusalem and returned to the home of Lazarus, Martha and Mary, in Bethany. In today’s lesson they give a dinner in his honor. Martha serves. The narrator now shifts the focus to Mary.
Anyone who has been through a great trial and experienced God’s help will understand what happens next. Keep in mind that Jesus miraculously restored her brother to her! Her heart is overflowing with gratitude!
Therefore, we are not surprised when, during supper, she excuses herself and later returns with a big jar of expensive perfume. Wishing to give expression to the full extent of her gratitude and appreciation to Jesus, she pours out the contents of the jar over his feet. The stench of death and loss that hovered only a few days earlier is now replaced with the pleasing aroma of sweet perfume, which fills the house. The scene reminds us of what the Apostle Paul says: that to those who believe, the good news of Christ is a sweet aroma rising to God, a fragrance redolent with life (2 Cor. 2:16).
The narrator tells us that the perfume is pure nard. Nard was a rare and precious spice imported from northern India. It comes from a shrub whose leaves and “shoots” were harvested and transported by caravan to the west. Sometimes it was mixed with its own root to increase its weight. It smelled like gladiola perfume and had a red color.
Note that Mary’s gift is called “pure” nard, which means it is without additives. This suggests that she purchased the very best. In fact, it is worth three hundred denarii, which is worth a year’s wages for a laborer. To put it in perspective, let us consider that factory labor at $20.00/hour can bring in about $40,000 in gross income. Mary just used the equivalent of $40,000 worth of perfume to anoint Jesus.
“It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). These are the words of Jesus. They are true, if there’s one who truly receives. We hesitate to give the gift we have to another because we are unsure of how it will be received. It is mortifying to give our gift only to find that the recipient does not appreciate it, or worse, rejects it altogether.
For example, consider the dilemma of the young man who’s falling in love with his new girlfriend. He wants to buy her a gift. And he wants the gift to express the depth of his feelings for her.
It is a truism that the gift reveals the heart of the giver. The gift shows the measure in which the heart of the giver has been moved by the one to whom he wishes to give it. But that is why the young man is apprehensive. They haven’t been seeing each other very long. She may not share the same feelings. If she doesn’t, an expensive gift will make her feel uncomfortable, and even scare her away.
The opportunity to give our gift at the same time puts us at risk. We have to make ourselves vulnerable. We mentioned earlier how easy it is to lavish our affection on our pet. That is because with our pet there is no risk of misunderstanding, judgment or rejection. With others it is not always so easy, as we can see in the case of the young man.
Mary makes herself vulnerable when she pours out this expensive perfume onto Jesus, a symbol of her whole being, of all that she is. Mary takes this risk, because she feels free to be herself in the presence of Jesus, to bare her heart to him. She does not feel restrained by fear. She does not feel a compulsion to hide what she feels. In Jesus she trusts that she is in a safe place.
And her trust is not violated. Jesus does not wave Mary off. He does not gently take her hands and say: “It’s okay. You don’t have to do this.”
Keith Starkenburg, professor of theology at Trinity Christian College in Palos Heights, Illinois, notes here that Jesus makes himself vulnerable not only to our grief and pain, but also to our devotion and joy. We need a place to offer ourselves, without risk of the shame of rejection. We need a place that will receive unconditionally what we are and have. Jesus is that place. Thus, we see that Jesus won’t allow Judas to shame Mary for her actions. He rises up to defend her: “Leave her alone!” Starkenburg asserts that Jesus Christ makes himself vulnerable to us so that we can make ourselves vulnerable to him and to one another.
Let us note that Mary is a model of Lenten devotion. In the Gospel of Luke, she has already distinguished herself as a contemplative. You will remember the scene. Martha and Mary are preparing dinner for Jesus. Martha is distracted by all the preparations that have to be made, while Mary is content to sit at the feet of Jesus and listen to his teaching (Luke 10:38-42).
We have already mentioned that one of the Lenten disciplines is meditation on God’s Word. In our devotions, do we feel safe enough to be totally vulnerable in God’s presence, to be free enough because we are totally accepted, so that with quiet hearts and minds we may worship and adore him and give to him our own expensive perfume, whatever form that may take?
Mary appreciates Jesus. Indeed, how can we imagine it to be otherwise? The death of her brother Lazarus was a catastrophic loss. At the tomb of Lazarus, she knelt at the feet of Jesus weeping, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (John 11:32). Now she is kneeling at the feet of Jesus in adoration. From Jesus she received her brother back from the dead. She’s so grateful that the word grateful doesn’t really suffice.
Author and neuroscience researcher Chris Coursey tells us that appreciation is created from unexpected acts of kindness. Parenthetically, that is a good definition of grace. At any rate, when we show our appreciation to another in response to an unexpected act of kindness, our relational circuits are activated, our nervous systems are resettled, and a cocktail of bonding hormones are released into our bloodstream, making us feel connected and peaceful.
Coursey notes that the Bible frequently calls God’s people to appreciate the great things that God has done on their behalf. In our devotion, we too should meditate on the great things that God has done on our behalf, as they are recorded for us in Scripture. We should also recall those times when God has intervened in our past to deliver us from difficulties that threatened to overwhelm us.
In our Old Testament lesson, God, through the prophet Isaiah, reminds the people that he is the one who makes a way in the sea. The reference here is to the exodus of God’s people from Egypt. With the Egyptian armies in pursuit behind them and the Red Sea in the front of them, God’s people seemed trapped. But miraculously God intervened. He parted the Red Sea, and they crossed over on dry land. But when the Egyptian chariots and horses, army and warriors, attempted to do the same, the waters came down over them, and they drowned.
The event is a symbol for us of those impossible situations from which God delivered us. But God, through the prophet, tells us that we can expect even greater deliverances from him. The one who once made a way through the water will now make a new way through the desert.
Giving thanks to God for the great things he has done, expressing our appreciation to him, strengthens our connection with him, and brings us peace.
The gesture of pouring out the perfume is a symbol of Mary’s whole being, poured out in devotion to Jesus. That is why it meant so much to him. He recognized what the perfume, together with that tender gesture, signified, and he praised her extravagance in the face of the outraged Judas (Thomas Keating).
But her gesture bears a meaning far beyond what she intends. No doubt she had kept the perfume for some later use, but now (unknowingly) uses it for his embalming. Jesus has not been prepared for burial (at least figuratively), and so on this fifth Sunday of Lent we are given an intimation of what awaits him during Holy Week, when Jesus enters into Jerusalem.
In giving to Jesus her expensive gift, Mary herself received a special gift. The Lord accepted her gift without reservation, totally and unconditionally. And in and with her gift, the Lord accepted her without reservation, totally and unconditionally. We may think that this gift that Mary received when she knelt at the feet of Jesus and anointed them with perfume sounds great, but how can ordinary people who have never known Jesus in the flesh hope to receive the same kind of gift?
It is true that God gave her this special grace. He communicates the interior perfume of his presence to Mary at her home in Bethany (Thomas Keating). But it is not intended for her alone. Let us remember that the invitation that Jesus extends to all who will hear it still stands today: “Come to me, all who are weary and heavy burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28). And in the Gospel of John, Jesus says that he will never cast out the one who comes to him (6:37).
To be sure, we do not have the same “in the flesh” experience as Mary, but Jesus has left to us symbols of his presence in the bread and the wine of Holy Communion. In his Supper, which we are about to celebrate, he extends to us the same grace in a form that we can see, touch and taste. Let us then give to him our devotion, confident that he will receive it. For in receiving it, he receives us. Amen.