It`s often been observed that for a good many people the days and weeks leading up to their death are marked by a decreasing circle of contact with other people. This is a simplification but the picture is of seeing fewer of those we call acquaintances and much more of our closer circle of friends and then by degrees probably just the family. As our energy declines along with our ability to communicate and the onset of all manner of medication this becomes, shall we say a much more intimate time.
In the same way, with Holy Week drawing closer, one of the things we see happening to Jesus is a gradual focus on the contact he has with those who are closest to him…. in particular the twelve disciples. Certainly as St. John tells the story, any sense of the wider “Jesus Movement” and the earlier apparent successes of his preaching and teaching ministry are now something of a fading memory.
The tide has turned. From riding the crest of a wave and being the talk of the district Jesus has found himself at the centre of fierce controversy; he`s become a divisive figure and swathes of would-be followers have now deserted him. Along with this, his enemies are actively plotting his death and now we are left with intimate scenes like the one we heard this morning…..that meal in Bethany; the home of Mary and Martha. And it`s with considerable skill that St. John invites us to enter into this place of intimacy between Christ and his few remaining companions.
So here we are in the midst of that Supper lovingly given in gratitude for the raising of Lazarus from the dead. We told that Martha serves; she does what she knows best…. And Mary, not for the first time, is sat at Jesus`s feet…. And what she does causes embarrassment and consternation. She encapsulates this intimacy by lavishing devotion on Jesus … And in an extremely evocative phrase, St. John tells us that the whole house was filed with the fragrance of what she had done.
We sometimes rather crudely say that someone had “caused a stink”…. Well, clearly people interpreted what Mary she did in different ways. St. John makes it clear that yet again Mary had got it right… this is how you should be before Jesus…. But not before he invites us to reflect on how what she did as it were, `got up the nose` of Judas Iscariot. In a very familiar phrase he protests, “Why was this perfume not sold and the money given to the poor?” Now, John puts his ungracious response down to Judas his being a bit of thief… but of course there`s more to it than that. Put aside for a moment the extreme embarrassment which I particular the men in the room will have experienced in seeing Mary behave like this did. This was after all, culturally shameful.
No, the key I believe, is in the word `intimacy`. The real contrast for me is that whilst Mary pours out her love and devotion to the one in front of her… Judas would lead us into the generality of `the poor`; a rather nameless, anonymous mass. Even today, those we call the chattering classes get caught up in this particular kind of debate don`t they? You hear people who should know better pontificating about the `deserving` and `undeserving` poor. People`s hardship is spoken of in terms of statistics… and such `generality` occupies swathes of newsprint and internet discourse. It keeps us occupied and even entertained. We can indulge ourselves in erudite and apparently informed comment; quote from those newspaper articles read and reel off more statistics about indolence and scrounging off the benefit system. The problem of course, is that there are no names behind the statistics; and `generality` keeps us immune from real engagement.
Generality allows Health authorities and other public bodies- even with the best intentions- to come over all strategic and to make decisions affecting the `mass` of people; people they will never have to see or encounter. And it`s curious that we monetarily reward these `arms-length` ones far more than those who actually do the caring.
Now this isn`t a rant about the NHS just a reflection on how so much of our common life is structured so as to separate us. It sometimes seems we`ve never had so much opportunity for communication- with all the technology at our finger tips- but we are devoid of real communication; real engagement with one another. Think of the people, a few years ago who were sacked by text message; and our constant plea that when we try to contact a utility company we might speak to a person rather than a machine. My point is that THIS is the territory inhabited by Judas… and as ever it always comes over as so credible, smart, efficient, clean and tidy…..
He`s among those whose mantras include the words `delivery` and `outcomes. All of which is far less complicated than engaging in real relationships with real, messed up people. It`s always easier to go for the general rather than intimate and specific. We`ve heard and seen these things a million times…. But Mary will have one of it….. The engagement, the commitment and the intimacy she lavishes on Christ is where we`re invited to focus our attention this morning. What she did at that dis-functional dinner party is our gateway into Holy Week.
You see everything about Jesus and Holy Week is up close and personal. As John describes it, the darkness is drawing in; the circle is getting smaller; the enemies lie in wait and there`s a distinct sense of claustrophobia.
But the great deed of Salvation accomplished by Christ was pre-figured at a humble dinner table. Where someone cared enough to serve. Where someone loved enough to risk acute embarrassment and criticism….. to give very personal and intimate attention. It`s the individual, personal acts of kindness which are the most fragrant isn`t it? This is where Jesus will be found and known and experienced.
This Holy Week, not least on Good Friday we`re invited to come to his feet in one singular act of devotion; to move from `generalities` about God to his specific, singular and intimate revelation in that man on the cross.
But of course, it`s there that we discover not what we`re doing for him… but what he`s doing for us…. on the most intimate level. You might recall at another meal, the night before he died, where Jesus turned the tables (no pun intended). He took a towel and despite Peter`s protests; washed his disciples feet. Intimacy again. Holy Week is about the God who refuses to deal in generalities but gets right up close and asks some pretty personal questions. So brace yourself…..