When Temperance = Extravagance.

Here is the text of a homily for Monday in Holy Week I preached a few years ago at the Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion, a variation of a homily preached before that at the Episcopal Church of St. Joseph of Arimathea, and before that at St. Matthew’s Episcopal Parish in Ft. Motte, SC, and some variation of which I will preach today at The Cathedral of St. John the Baptist – which, I think, qualifies in some very modest way as Anglican Patrimony in the Catholic Church.

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Monday in Holy Week
Mark 14.3-9 (cf Jn 12.1-11)
Fr. Patrick Allen

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mary-washing-jesus-feetOn the Monday of Holy Week we always read about an event that perhaps seems to us quaint, or sweet, but somehow small and maybe incidental in its importance in the life of our Lord, particularly with regard to all that is to come in the remainder of the week. A woman – and this woman is Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, we know from the other Gospel accounts – anoints the head and feet of Jesus with oil. That’s nice, we are wont to say, a touching scene from Jesus’ last days. It may seem like a smallish thing to us, but according to our Lord, it was a big deal. According to the other Gospel accounts, Jesus says to those gathered around the table, “I say to you, wherever the gospel is preached in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.”

Well, why – what exactly did she do, and why did our Lord recognize in her deed an act of faith worthy of proclamation and emulation as long and as far as the Gospel message is heard?

It is difficult for us in our day to conceive of the important role that fragrant ointments and oils played in the ancient near east, but they were an important sign of blessing and beauty, and highly valued. We read that the ointment with which Mary anointed Jesus on this occasion was “of pure nard”, an especially valued ointment made from an herb grown far, far away in the high Himalayan pastureland of northern India and Tibet, brought in caravans at great expense across Asia to Palestine, now to the house of Simon the Leper in the little Jerusalem suburb of Bethany. Judas, who had an eye for these sort of things, tells us that Mary’s alabaster flask of pure nard could easily have been sold for some 300 denarii, which translates into about a year’s wages for a working man – a working man like, for an instance not quite chosen at random, a carpenter.

And beyond expensive, it was ephemeral – once it was used it was gone forever. Its effect vanished at the next bath or even the next hot, dusty walk to Jerusalem.

There are hints enough in the Gospels for us to conclude that Simon the Leper and the household including Mary, Martha, and Lazarus were relatively well to do folks, but even so, the pouring out of this entire flask of ointment at one go was recognized by all there to be an outrageous act – so much so that several of Jesus’ disciples were, well, outraged, they were “indignant” according to our translation. John tells us that it was the tightwad and thief Judas who spoke the words, but the other evangelists make sure we know he was speaking on behalf of the others – the common opinion was that this lavish outpouring was shameful and wasteful.

But beyond expensive , this anointing of the Anointed One was, we might say, unseemly. St. John tells us that Mary wiped Jesus’ feet with her hair. But Jewish women of that day –and indeed women of many cultures down to the present day – simply did not let down their hair in public, never before a man who was not her husband. That Mary did so was improper in the extreme. All there, in addition to their outrage at the waste, would have been shocked by this humiliating display, by this ridiculous woman so overcome with emotion that she forgot herself and her dignity utterly. It was impolite; it was just not done; it was – dare I say it – tacky.

So this act of Mary’s, so undignified, so apparently wasteful, so shocking to the other dinner guests, but so impressive and appreciated by our Lord, was expensive, and it was self-forgetting; it was, in every way, extravagant.

In the Bible study I lead down the block at MUSC, we are looking at the four cardinal virtues, and last week we considered Temperance – that is, the virtue, ingrained moral habit, of moderation, of self-mastery and self-control. And it may seem that Mary’s act was, to say the least, intemperate. But Thomas Aquinas reminds us that to act temperately means to act in accord with reason, to act in a manner appropriate to the situation. And here, in this extravagant act of love and gratitude and adoration, we see the very model of an appropriate, temperate response to the grace of God in Jesus – lavish, self-forgetting, and even in the eyes of some who ought to know better, wasteful, immoderate, and, yes, tacky.

Mary looks at those gathered around Simon the Leper’s table, and what does she see? She sees her brother Lazarus. In Isaac Newton’s hymn “Amazing Grace” we sing, “I once was blind, but now I see.” Well, here is Lazarus, who once was dead but now he lives! And here is the Anointed One, who called him forth out of the grave. How do you respond appropriately to that gift?

Tonight we come to the Altar, and what do we see? It is a foretaste of the heavenly banquet that is to come, the Wedding Feast of the Lamb, and we will be there, even as Lazarus, honored guests – and why? Because of a loving Lord who did not simply call us out of the grave, but in love entered into the grave himself; who died for us, and so dying destroyed death and its power forever – the Anointed One who, as have read in our Epistle lesson, “entered once for all into the Holy Place, taking not the blood of goats and calves, but his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption.”

How will we respond to that gift? What could “appropriate” possibly mean in such a context?

“Love so amazing, so divine, demands my heart, my soul, my all.”

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