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Homilies by Rev. Andrew Collis unless indicated otherwise.

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Lent 5, Year C
South Sydney Uniting Church
March 13, 2016

Psalm 126; Philippians 3:4b-14; John 12:1-8

‘To one about to die’

Chinese artist He Qi’s work, “Mary anoints the feet of Jesus”, invites us to see Mary, and the scornful faces behind her, through the eyes of Jesus … I invite you to have the artwork before you.

Sometimes you imagine what it might be like to attend your own funeral …

In today’s Gospel Jesus experiences the mournful love of a friend, Mary of Bethany. He is not dead, and yet he is loved as one who will die. He is loved as one about to die. God be with you

Perhaps, in the context of eternity, he is loved as one who is already dead. Dead, yet loved, so living. There is a moment of death in Mary’s devotion, too – unselfishly (un-self-consciously) she attends to the one she regards beautiful. In that moment, we might say, there is a radical decentring for Mary … and for Jesus …

This is a story about death, about friendship, about extravagant love that is life-giving.

Anointing the feet was not something usually done but to a corpse. Mary’s act prefigures preparation for burial of Jesus’ body. Mary’s act is prophetic – a loving act in the midst of mistrust, hostility on the part of the religious authorities, and the ambiguous, sensation-seeking adulation of the Jerusalem crowds. An act of love.

It calls to mind an act of love toward a person who is gravely ill, unconscious, absent or highly vulnerable. Jesus is vulnerable because he is a marked man, an enemy of the state, a misfit and trouble-maker.

An act of love. This is a different quality of love from that which simply aids another – a love that prolongs life by way of food or money. The rabbis call that almsgiving. No, this love (of Mary for Jesus) is of a different order. Indeed, it is difficult to speak of this love. Difficult to measure it – a love the rabbis call a work of mercy.

Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin of Catholic Worker fame emphasise this love – works of mercy – even as they call for social change; for food, money, housing and employment opportunities.

When a work of mercy appears, we often, like Judas, disparage it in the name of social justice or the common good – but these are excuses, abstractions (if not always lies). The “poor” become a screen behind which to hide – to hide from the bright light of the singular other, the particular person in pain or trouble, the irreplaceable one before me whose being is frail and finite.

And yet, this flesh-and-blood individual may demand my all, for he or she is the one I “won’t always have” with me (to cite, as Jesus cites, Deuteronomy 15:11).

There is a scandal in this. Theologians call it the “scandal of particularity”. God reveals godself not in humankind in general (this is a philosophical abstraction) but in the life, death and resurrection of one particular anointed person – one poor, non-violent, loving, merciful person.

We might see in Mary of Bethany a model of Christian worship – non-idolatrous devotion. Worshiping the Creator through the Incarnate and Anointed One, in the Spirit of love. So practised, our love begins to discern God beyond the Sunday liturgy – what Peter Maurin calls “the Christ in others”.

We can know the joy of a world filled with love as “the scent of the ointment” fills a house; as Mary’s good name and faith are widely known. But in the beginning there is love. Mary does more than she knows. Her love precedes her understanding. Her devotion to one in need, in pain, in trouble, is paramount.

Taking Mary’s perspective, one poet writes: “Anointing his body for burial, he said./ A truth I had not understood until he spoke it./ My salute to one about to die! My passionate/ Uncomprehending ‘yes’ to his incarnate flesh!/ Just so do acts of love precede our understanding” (Alan Gaunt, 1996).

And when we come to think about the love of God for the world, we may discern something akin to the love of Mary. For God, in and through the Word, attends to particulars. A particular people, Israel. Particular prophets and poets, seekers of wisdom within particular cultures and traditions, gospel writers, lepers, sinners, disciples called friends, the dying and the dead. Lazarus. And so the whole world is saved.

If we understand that the whole world is offered salvation is it not that we first find ourselves in love? Before we understand the power of God’s promise for all, we each, each in distinctive ways, find ourselves in love with the Gospel, in love with the beauty of it, in love with the one who is a misfit and a trouble-maker, frail and finite?

If we understand that the whole world is destined for healing and wholeness, is it not that we first find ourselves in love with one about to die?

Which particular image, word or phrase in the Gospel most speaks to your heart? … Amen.


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