Fifth Sunday in Lent
How’s your Lent been this year? Some people think you’re supposed to give up all frivolity, laughter, and joy, and just act depressed, because – you know – this is all about discipline. That really misses the point of Lent. Lent is meant to be a kind of spring training, a time to learn or remember the skills and habits of Christian living. We’re not supposed to be morose, because we know that God is always doing a new thing, bringing new and more abundant life out of every experience of death. We’re supposed to remember that we’re not alone, that God is caring for the whole creation, that we have not been abandoned but rather that God walks with us through seasons of joy and of grief.
We did something joyous yesterday, in the midst of Lent, in celebrating the new relationship between this diocese and your new bishop. There’s plenty of life left in this old body called the Diocese of Eau Claire. There is indeed “clear water” here, for a world that’s profoundly thirsty for meaning and connection with the holy.
Lent developed as a time of preparation for those who would be baptized at Easter. Those catechumens studied, fasted, prayed, and learned the skills and habits of being a disciple of Jesus. Already-baptized members of those early Christian communities began to join the ones who were preparing, as an act of solidarity, and in the process they discovered an opportunity to tune up their own lives.
In some strands of Christianity there has long been a sense that the focus on fasting and giving up the enjoyment of created things in Lent is because those things are intrinsically corrupt or evil. Yet that’s not a fully Christian understanding. It IS a reflection of the age-old struggle to be in the world but not of it, to bless God for the good things of creation and not turn them into idols or false gods. Some people have always found it easier to simply reject created things, lest they tempt us, rather than look for their created goodness. Think about the doctrinaire former smoker, or the most rabid members of the temperance movement. Any good gift can be misused or turned into an idol or an addiction – and that’s a reason to let those good things go for a season so we can notice and refocus our use of them. There’s a great article in this morning’s New York Times about secular Jews and agnostics giving things up for Lent out of this same sense of refocusing.
That kind of struggle is part of what’s going on with Mary and her nard. Jesus has come to dinner, Martha has worked her usual wonders in the kitchen, Lazarus and Jesus sit down to enjoy the banquet, and Mary brings out her pot of perfume. This is the Lazarus who has come back from the dead, and he is clearly capable of enjoying a good meal with family and friends! Mary breaks out the most precious thing she has, in order to anoint Jesus’ feet. As the prophet Isaiah puts it, “Beautiful are the feet of the one who announces peace, who brings good news of salvation, who says, ‘your God reigns.’” Mary is recognizing and blessing that messenger of peace and good news, and she’s doing it with sweet-smelling nard, and the odor of it fills the house. Nard is a thick oil, made of an herb called spikenard. It was an ingredient in the incense burned in the Temple as prayers were offered up to God. In the ancient world it was a kind of sacred aromatherapy. Mary is using a precious and beautiful thing of creation in her own prophetic act – to say and show that this one I anoint is God’s messenger of peace and good news.
But Judas complains. “You’re wasting it!” The implication is both that she’s throwing away something he wants to get his own hands on, and that she’s wasting it on Jesus. But Jesus doesn’t buy it – this is an act of grace, a holy thing. There will be many opportunities to serve the poor – don’t put off this one!
How do we respond to the gifts of creation? What habit or skill might we be cultivating in Lent? There is something deeply provocative about letting go of a good part of creation that we’ve come to treat unconsciously. Even something as simple as a change in diet can alert us to the blessing of what we’re eating. The challenge to fast or simplify our meals is an invitation to consciousness about the blessing on our plates. It’s like learning to eat eggs without salt – at first they taste incredibly bland, but eventually you can begin to discriminate between ordinary factory eggs and the kind that come from wilder chickens. Even giving up chocolate for Lent can make you more deeply appreciative of it when Easter rolls around!
The God who can produce rivers of water in the desert is the same one who blesses the simplest things of creation. We’re beginning to recognize how centrally important those simple things are, particularly in a world where there is not nearly adequate provision of Eau Claire for all the world’s people. The act of baptism in the ancient Middle East was a lavish use of this kind of scarce resource, very much like pouring a pound of nard on a man’s feet. It echoes God’s act of love in creating all that is – what overwhelming abundance and riotous diversity! A God like that is not a miser, isn’t interested in hoarding the good stuff for himself, or putting off the joy that comes with generous celebration. Lazarus has been restored to life, and Mary, Martha, and Jesus are there to rejoice, not to stint the celebration because the perfume might better be put in the bank for a rainy day!
The difference between Mary and Judas is motivation, and who or what is at the center of their actions. Mary is not focused on using the nard for herself. Judas is – he wants it or what it represents, for his own ends. One of them seeks to bless another with radical abundance and the other gets angry at supposedly using up what he already thinks of as his goodies. His modus operandi seems to be “I’m going to get mine while the getting is good.” This is the same contrast we heard in the story of the younger and the older sons and their prodigally generous father. What is most important in our lives? The ability to bless another with the good things at hand? Or filling our coffers, barns, stomachs, and bank accounts for ourselves alone? That’s the kind of choice that Lent is meant to highlight. What habits are you cultivating in this season? Are your feet becoming beautiful?
When the Maundy Thursday footwashing rolls around in 10 days, consider those feet. Go look for beautiful feet, the ones that bring their wearers to announce good news of healing and peace, redemption and release, new life and the just use of God’s good creation. Our own feet become beautiful as we discover the face of Jesus in the poor who are always with us – and within us and around us and among us. Discover the poor and announce good news of love as sweet-smelling and generous as that nard. Announce good news and give evidence in concrete acts of love – new socks for people living on the street, mental health care and support, befriending prisoners and their families, feeding the hungry. Pour out your nard, spread it around as prodigally as you can, and you will discover beautiful feet – even the ones you’re standing on.
 Isaiah 52:7