My song is love unknown

John 12.1–11

My song is love unknown,
my Saviour’s love to me,
love to the loveless shown,
that they might lovely be.
O who am I
that for my sake
my Lord should take
frail flesh, and die?

When Jesus speaks to Mary’s sister Martha in John chapter 11, he says

I am the resurrection and the life.

Now, Mary is preparing ’the Resurrection and the Life’ for his death.

Without a doubt, Mary of Bethany is one of the most interesting characters in the whole Bible. She only gets three mentions: once in Luke’s Gospel, twice in John’s. Each time, she appears with her sister, Martha. Each time, she is found at the feet of Jesus. Each time, she touches Jesus deeply.

In Luke’s Gospel, chapter 10, we have perhaps the most familiar story of Mary and Martha; Jesus visits them, and Martha busies and distracts herself with providing a wonderful meal for Jesus. Mary, on the other hand, sits at his feet. There, she takes the position of a disciple. A learner, a listener. According to Jesus, who it seems would have been content with less fuss, Mary has chosen the better part.

The first time in the Gospel of John that we meet Mary is in the story of the raising of Lazarus. Lazarus is the brother of Mary and Martha. You may remember that Lazarus is ill, and Mary and Martha send a message to Jesus asking him to come. They believe that if Jesus does come, he can heal Lazarus. Jesus deliberately delays. He knows the grief this will cause the two sisters, but he delays nonetheless.

When he arrives, Martha comes to meet him. Her greeting is a kind of rebuke: ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’ Jesus replies, ‘Your brother will rise again.’ Martha, faced with the finality and horror of death, responds in a religiously orthodox—and safe—way: ‘I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.’ ‘I am the resurrection and the life,’ is Jesus’ reply. You don’t have to wait until the last day, Martha; I am here.

Martha went and told Mary that Jesus was there. Mary’s first words were the same as Martha’s: ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’ But there is a difference. Mary’s speaks while she kneels at the feet of Jesus; she speaks while she weeps. Her grief moves Jesus deeply. And Jesus also weeps.

As the story continues, Jesus calls Lazarus forth from the tomb, wrapped in graveclothes. In St John’s Gospel, it is this incident which finally seals Jesus’ fate. The authorities can’t have dead men walking all over the place! It upsets the proper order!

Mary, Martha, and Lazarus come into the story one more time. Jesus is in Bethany again, and having a meal at their house. Typically, Martha serves the meal. And Mary is at the feet of Jesus. She takes expensive perfume, worth about a year’s wages for a labourer. And she pours it prodigally over Jesus’ feet. Remember, he didn’t have Gucci shoes. His feet were as dusty and dirty and smelly and cracked as anyone else’s. But Mary bends near. Mary gives something which costs her dearly.

Firstly, she gives all the perfume; its aroma fills the whole house. Secondly, she wipes Jesus’ feet with her hair. Only prostitutes and women who didn’t care about their reputation let their hair down in public. Mary no longer cared about what others thought. But she did care about Jesus, who had brought her brother back. Was this as sensuous a scene as it sounds? Probably. Were there tears here? We’re not told, but I think there were, and not just on Mary’s face.

Jesus says Mary is anointing him for his death. But anointing his body while it is still alive, rather than waiting for death.

Mary had bought the perfume for his burial. And now she is using it ahead of time. His burial is fast approaching. She is acting as a prophet.

Do you see the irony? Jesus, who calls a dead man out of the tomb, will soon be in a tomb himself. Jesus, the resurrection and the life, will soon be dead. He who saves others will not save himself. And Mary is there, anointing him, giving him just the ministry he needs, a ministry which no one but Jesus really understands.

Mary of Bethany was a remarkable woman. Only ever seen at Jesus’ feet, she listens and learns; she grieves and weeps; she anoints and cleanses. In Jesus, she finds the centre of her life; and in the end, she treats his body with a reverence which will be lacking at his trial and on the cross.

In all this, Mary provides us with a clear example of Christian discipleship. There is one other in this story, one who though a man, is not an example of Christian discipleship. That one is, of course, Judas.

Judas was a good treasurer! He pointed out a better use for the money—it could feed the poor. But Jesus says the poor will always be with us.

Let me tell a story.

I was once walking the streets of Gloucester, England, with a Quaker who was showing me around her city. We walked past the cathedral, a beautiful place which on another visit I worshipped in. But on that occasion, I said, ‘What a waste of money! The cost of this building could have been used to feed the poor.’ (Obviously, I was channelling my inner Judas.)

My Quaker friend said, ‘No. If the government stopped making more and more weapons, we would have enough money for buildings that glorify God and more than enough for the poor.’

We shall always have the poor, because of our disobedience.

Mary is rightly remembered for giving her greatest gift to her Lord, in pouring out her heart. Will we pour out our hearts as Easter comes?

For the Monday of Holy Week, 2017; adapted from sermon for 25.03.07

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