A Touching Place: John 12, 1-11
One of the most striking features of the gospel retelling of the stories of Christ's suffering and death is the importance of bodies.
Invite the Bible study participants to share all the examples they can remember of where bodies matter in the gospels.
We hear of jostling crowds, of the healing touch of Jesus, of Mary's anointing, of the pangs of hunger and the sharing of food, of the washing of hot and dirty feet; then, more painfully, of the kiss of betrayal, of torturing and killing, of laying out for burial.
The vulnerability and care of bodies is central to the Passion narratives. Jesus himself continually and compassionately brings bodily needs into visibility.
The Japanese theologian, Kosuke Koyama, writes: "What is love if it remains invisible and intangible? Those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen cannot love God whom they have not seen.
The devastating poverty in which millions of children live is visible. Racism is visible. Machine guns are visible. Starved bodies are visible. The gap between rich and poor is glaringly visible. Our response to these realities must be visible. Grace cannot function in a world of invisibility.
Yet in our world, the rulers try to make invisible the alien, the orphan, the hungry and thirsty, the sick and imprisoned. This is violence. Their bodies must remain visible. There is a connection between invisibility and violence. People, because of the image of God they embody, must remain seen.
Faith, hope and love are not vital except in what is seen. Religion seems to raise up the invisible and despise what is visible. But it is the 'see, hear, touch' gospel that can nurture the hope which is free from deception.
In this Holy Week gospel, we see Mary ministering that ‘see, hear, touch', gospel to Jesus. She is anointing him for his death, in a beautiful, intimate and profoundly loving way. It is a very personal story of love and devotion, of comforting, and yet its beauty and privacy should not blind us to its wider significance.
The anointing is an act of pure extravagance; the stench of the dead Lazarus has been replaced by the perfume of Mary’s uncalculating love. Judas, protesting, tries to force an either/or division-either one can love Jesus or one can love the poor.
But Jesus refutes Judas by affirming the kind of both/and love that Mary has shown. It is perfectly possible to love both; this is a false and ungenerous dichotomy.
Mary is anointing Jesus for a bitter and untimely death, which neither wants, yet both accept as the likely outcome of his challenge to the religious authority of Jerusalem. Her declaration for Jesus is not deferred until after his death but is offered to him publicly while he still lives.
In so doing, she makes visible not just her love, but the violence to which Jesus is to be subjected. She is a model of resistance to violence through the love that acts.
The love that acts
There are many Marys among the partners Christian Aid works with, resisting violence through the love that acts.
Sierra Leone is a country that suffered a decade of civil war which created thousands millions of internally displaced people. Even though the war is now over, undercurrents of violence have persisted, as people return home and communities are rebuilt often with people who were fighting each other during the war.
Yvette works as a community animator with Christian Aid partner NJMD in communities around Bo.
She speaks powerfully of some of the atrocities that took place during the war: 'Men were raping women. They killed our children, the husbands.
Usually when they get to the village they recruit the young ones [as child soldiers], they joined them and they killed the elderly people. Then the children and the women tend to suffer because they rape them. Sometimes they even kill them.'
She now spends her time visiting communities, providing support to village development committees and helping villagers to set up dialogue sessions.
The community animators have also worked through NMJD and another Christian Aid partner, MCSL, helping people returning home to re-establish their livelihoods (through training in farming techniques or building granaries) and setting up literacy and skills circles.
Through these spaces, the animators have been able to coax people to work together and are bringing reconciliation and healing in communities that have experienced so much damage and violence.
Mary's anointing of Jesus’ feet rather than his head anticipates the footwashing in John 13. It models discipleship and service. But it is also, as the gospel makes clear, a participation in Jesus’ suffering and death.
It is a mark of service but also of identification with Jesus’ passion. Mary does for Jesus now what he will do for his disciples later. We strain to glimpse his mercy-seat, and find him kneeling at our feet. (Brian Wren)
Mary’s anointing anticipates the commandment that Jesus will give his followers. ‘Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.’
The depth of Mary’s love is signalled by the extravagance of her gift. Mary models what it means to be a disciple; to serve, to love one another, to share in Jesus’ death and resurrection. It is an open invitation not just to talk about love, as Judas did, but to be the reminder, in our concrete personal and political decisions and actions, that, as Paul says, if we have not love, we are nothing.
'The rejoicing of a private and exclusive community fails to invite all to hope. That is not the gospel. Hope with all creation and rejoice with all creation! What a far-reaching horizon! This horizon is not a hallucination.
For God, no one is stranger. We cannot love our neighbours unless we are open to being loved by our neighbours. We cannot extend hospitality to strangers unless we accept hospitality from strangers. The gospel upholds this two – way traffic. One – way traffic breeds self – righteousness.' (Kosuke Koyama)
This story is as much about receiving as about giving. Jesus’ acceptance of, and refusal to condemn Mary’s gift is, in its own way, a gift of love.
Finally, Jesus becomes the supplicant himself, giving dignity and grace to vulnerability and need. This is the way we are to be with one another, a way grounded firmly on mutual exchange, acceptance and respect for one another in all our frailty.
Where in your community and around the world do you see examples of women resisting violence through the love that acts?
Whose vulnerability and bodily suffering do we need to make more visible in our world? Where do you see rulers trying to make this invisible?
In what ways might we minister to others through our loving actions? In what ways do others minister to us?