Based on Mark 14:3-9
Richard L. Jeske, Vicar
As a youth, I always wondered about this day. It begins Holy Week, the most sacred week of the year, but with such ambiguity. Its very name gives mixed signals: “Palm Sunday – the Sunday of the Passion.” Is it a parade, or is it a wake? Is it a festival, or is it a funeral? Is it a time of rejoicing or a time of sadness? Is it a time of God's presence or a time of God's withdrawal? Is it Palm Sunday, a celebration, or Passion Sunday, a tragedy?
Why continue that original mistaken celebration when we know how it all ends? Why repeat the action of that first Palm Sunday, when we now know that in a few short days that moment was forgotten as a dream, and triumph went to tragedy, adoration to ashes, celebration to crucifixion?
We remember it because the whole story is to be remembered, not just part of it -- that sometime, one day, one Sunday, in one hour of watching with Jesus, we can gather together to read the whole story, not just snippets of it. And it begins in a surprising way: something like a footnote happens, like something incidental, but it is to be told wherever the gospel of Christ is proclaimed, a brief vignette of a woman engaged in an act of giving:
[Read Mark 14.3-9.]
As soon as the story is read it drifts into the background and is almost forgotten, lost in the fast-moving drama of Passion Week. As soon as it is read, it sounds like a story that doesn't belong where it is, a leftover from earlier days [where in fact Luke puts it in his gospel (Luke 7.36-50)]. But each time Mark's (and Matthew's) story of Jesus' suffering and death is told, this woman's action introduces the story, and both Mark and Matthew conclude it with the words: "Wherever the gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her."
What has she done? She has taken something very costly, some very expensive oil, and poured it on Jesus' head. In that culture, for hundreds of years, that's what you did to kings and prophets and priests -- at their inauguration when they were being set aside to do the work of God. But Jesus puts her act in perspective: "she is anointing me beforehand -- for burial." But that word was not on Jesus’ disciples’ agenda: every time he talked about dying they rebuked him for it. Now here’s a woman who is doing what they don’t want to see, or hear, or understand. But she did; she understood. And that contrast is posed for us to remember at the beginning of the story, indeed wherever the gospel is at work – “where the gospel if proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.”
Why is that the case -- that wherever the gospel is preached what she has done will be remembered? At the beginning of the Passion History we are told a story of a poignant act of giving and receiving. Throughout the rest of the story we are told of “achievers”: of plotters, and dealers, and takers, and betrayers, and denyers, and scrammers. Now we get to see what the gospel really is, and we get to place ourselves somewhere in the drama.
Didn't you hear yourself say somewhere along the way: “Couldn't there have been another way? Why did things have to play out this way? Did things have to begin with a parade only to end on a cross?” Didn't you hear yourself say: “Why go to Jerusalem? Why take the risk, Jesus? Why not stay at Bethany? Why not stay on the hillsides teaching? Why not remain in the villages healing? Think of all the good you can do there? Why go to Jerusalem to die? What a waste, what a waste.”
And pretty soon, the question makes momentary sense: "Why was this ointment wasted in this way? This ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii, and the money given to the poor." Jesus' answer is that only recipients can understand, and if the rest of these “achievers” are really interested in the poor they will always have ample opportunity to show that interest. The poor will always be there for them to be recipients of their good giving. But right now, this recipient will not be distracted from her giving. She has received, and now she wants to give, because only those who know themselves to be recipients can want to give. Out of all the others, this one woman has heard the gospel her Lord has been proclaiming, the good news of God about God's giving and our receiving. Out of all the others, she has grasped why Jesus has come: not to remain on the hillsides teaching, not to remain in the villages healing; she knows that he has come “to give his life as a ransom for the many” (Mark 10.45).
But before he can give, he himself must also receive. And he does. He receives the oil of anointing. It might be waste, but it is holy waste, an act in which someone finally affirmed why he had come. It was an act of devotion in which someone encouraged him to do what he had come to do. It was a moment of celebration to be remembered by him in his moments of sorrow, a moment of joy to sustain him in the coming hours of suffering. It was a gift from God, this moment, the good news of God's giving, through this woman, to Jesus. Such an important moment in the story: it was an act to be remembered by all of us wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world. It was to be told in remembrance of her, the giver, and of him, the receiver.
She must have heard him, when he said that he would be given over into the hands of sinful men, and be killed, and on the third day rise again. Out of all the others who did not want to listen to that (Mark 8.32, 9.32, 10.34), she heard him, and believed him. So in the midst of his giving she stopped him, and gave him something to prepare him for the burial at hand. She must have believed him, that in his final act of giving he would become a recipient. She believed him, that when he gave himself up on the cross he would become a recipient of the life God had in store for him beyond the cross. She believed that he would give himself as a ransom for the many; and she believed that on the third day he would be raised from death. She believed that, and so at the outset of his final journey she reminded him that the one who would give himself would also be a recipient. Her act of giving proclaimed the gospel to him, and therefore he said, "wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her."
So he must have remembered. He must have remembered her when no one would give him anything anymore. He must have remembered her when no one could watch and pray with him; he must have remembered her, when the ones who said they would never desert him scattered like leaves in the wind; he must have remembered her when the betrayer gave him his phony kiss and when his denyer stood outside in the courtyard; he must have remembered her when no one else stood at the foot of his cross but the lonely Roman soldier who at the very moment of Jesus' giving could say, "Truly this was God’s Son."
He remembered the giver who made him a recipient. And he could think back over the many times when he was tempted to be the achiever -- when the crowds wanted him to be their king, their great wonder-worker, their great teacher -- and he had to escape to a solitary place where he could pray – alone. He went away to pray, because he knew that achievers do not pray, only recipients do. And out of all the others who were waiting for him to show his mighty power, this woman reminded him that he was a recipient. And he must have remembered her, when in his moment of final giving he began to pray, starting with Psalm 22.1, "My God, my God why have you forsaken me," and continuing straight through to Psalm 31.5, "Into your hands I commit my spirit; you have redeemed me, O Lord, faithful God" (cf. Luke 23.48). He must have remembered her when he prayed those Psalms, for her act of encouragement strengthened him, and he would not be distracted from it. "She has anointed my body beforehand for its burial. And truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her."
This week, when Christians gather on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, others will say “What a waste – what a waste of time” – as they turn to their TV Guides to find something “more important” to do. They will know nothing about holy waste, nothing about sacred, sacramental time -- only about profane and empty waste. But today we begin with a story of holy waste, a small quiet story that “Wherever the gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her."
Soon we’re in a garden, Gethsemane, where the handover takes place. There has to be a garden in this story, because that’s where the whole Bible begins, in a garden called Eden, the new creation of God. But in that garden, two people decided that the garden was theirs, not God’s. They dreamed about being like God, and ruling over everything. So God gave them some work to do, tilling the ground by the sweat of their brows, working for their bread and experiencing pain to replenish the earth, to which one day they would return, dust to dust and ashes to ashes. Today we hear of another garden, one where Jesus prayed for us, was taken for us, and gave himself over for us, so that once again we might regain the life God originally planned for us, eternal, authentic life with God. The last pages of the Bible also end in a garden, as the Book of Revelation describes it, a garden in God’s holy city, with a tree there producing fruit every season and whose leaves offer healing, healing to the nations (Revelation 22:2). That is the church’s mission, the mission of healing, given to it by its Lord.
So this week we are asked to go to a garden and pray with Jesus – for one hour. We are asked to end our season of Lent with three sacred days of prayer. We go with our Lord from Gethsemane to Golgotha, from a garden to the place of a skull, the dark place of the cross. We get to reflect on how dark everything would stay if it were not for next Sunday, the day of new life. Then on that day we will see how God broke through the darkness to give us eternal light. It will be God’s work, God’s gift to his Son, and to us. We are recipients of God’s giving, and we will be left not with the drudgery, but with the privilege of preparing, like that unnamed woman did, of preparing Christ’s way in this world.