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The Fifth Sunday of Lent, Year C

Lavish Love

Readings: Isaiah 43:16-21; Psalm 126; Philippians 3:8-14; John 12:1-8

Jesus is on the road again. He has returned to Jerusalem at great peril. It is a daring act on his part, publicly entering the city, even going into the temple. He is risking his life by doing so. Perhaps even a bit shaken and scared from the danger lurking around him and hoping to find some reassurance, he sets out for Bethany to see his dearest friends.

Bethany has become his headquarters during this visit to Jerusalem for the celebration of the Passover. It is not difficult to understand why. Bethany is a hamlet just over the eastern ridge of the Mount of Olives. From Bethany to the Temple is no more than three kilometres, closer even than the Garden of Gethsemane.

But there is more to the visit than that, for Jesus has three friends there, Mary, Martha and Lazarus. He loves them. They love him. At Bethany he will find friends, family, a place to relax, a place where he can be himself. They go all out and prepare a dinner party for him. Martha loves to entertain. Lazarus sits at the table with Jesus and his friends.

Impetuous and affectionate, Mary comes forward during the dinner bearing a flagon of costly perfumed oil. Pouring the rich ointment over Jesus' feet, she bathes them with oil. What is her intention? She is certainly communicating her love for Jesus. In that anointing we see anticipated his death. It is a gift of humility. It displays love and generosity of spirit. It is a lavish gift from a prodigal child. Whatever her motive, it is a gift given in gratitude, a gift of pure thanksgiving.

Judas immediately reacts to her unselfish act. “Why waste such a lavish gift? Convert it to cash. Make it useful,” he says to her. “Use it for good works and deeds of mercy.” And at first glance he seems to be right. The oil cost the equivalent of a year's wages. Is it not an excessive gift? That kind of money could feed a lot of hungry people.

So imagine the expression on Mary's face; it changes from joy to shame. But what Judas has really failed to understand is that Mary's gesture is hers to give. It is not his. It is not ours. And it was exactly the gift that Jesus needed. He accepted the gift with the same generosity of spirit with which it had been given. He saw the bitter sweetness of the gift. And so he accepted it with sadness as well.

His words to Judas are not angry words of rebuke. They are the words of one who sees love betrayed. Jesus knows that Judas' attack on Mary tells so much about him, about his lack of love, about his misunderstanding of all that Jesus stands for. It reveals Jesus' failure to communicate what is going on in his life. It is the failure of his gospel message of love. Jesus knows that her gift is an anointing for burial.

He speaks words of truth. “You always have the poor with you, but I will not always be here,” he says. Jesus is not forgetting the poor. He spent his ministry befriending the poor. He ate with outcasts and sinners. He healed the sick. He fed the hungry. He knew they would always be in need of our concern and help. He knew that his followers would continue the work that he began. He knew that he was preparing his followers to reach out to one another in love.

We have the poor with us always. That is certainly not difficult to understand. Food Banks that we naively thought would be a short term solution to a problem continue to expand. In Canada, one of the richest countries in the world, children go to bed hungry. We personally may live in relative luxury, but there are many in Durham region who live below the poverty line. In a recent report on poverty it was pointed out that it affects people on so many levels. Their access to health care, proper nutrition, adequate housing and transportation marginalizes them.

Yes! The poor you have with you always. I am reminded of it every time I go into Port Hope. I see a man sitting on a bench in the downtown area. People bring him coffee and stop to talk to him. He is dirty and unkempt. And sometimes I reach into my purse and give him some spare change. Sadly I often find a little dialogue going on in my “He'll just spend it on booze.” Fortunately it is a fleeting thought. I personally would rather give a little change to alleviate his suffering than miss giving it and think that he might really need the most basic things in life. I remember too that surely our gifts to anyone in need, large or small, are tokens of our loyalty and commitment to the Christian faith. They are expressions of our love for Christ.

There are other kinds of poverty as well. In our impersonal society, so many people live impoverished lives. They live an existence that is not really living. There are the bereaved. There are the sick and the suffering. There are the lonely. There are the unemployed. There are those who deal daily with mental illness. There is so much need around us. How do we become Christ for them?

A young woman I know suffers from deep depression. She told me how meaningless her life was. She spoke of non-existence, of lack of memories, of not being a person. She said that she experienced only death. She had, in fact made elaborate plans for her own death. Then one day she came into my office looking totally different. Happy! Not a manic high, but truly happy! She spoke differently. There was no talk of suicide. She had experienced something wonderful, a whole new way of looking at herself.

"I know the feeling of happiness will not last," she told me. "But it doesn't matter somehow. Now I know what it is like to live. I’ll remember it when despair sets in again. It will never be as bad again."

There are those who are spiritually impoverished. For whatever reason, they have not heard or believed the gospel message. Or even more sadly they have lost what they once knew. How do we share the good news of Christ with them?

Mary knelt at the feet of Jesus and offered the lavish gift of her love. At the altar we offer our best gifts. We break bread. We bless wine. These are symbols of human life, products of human hands. They satisfy the basic human needs of hunger and thirst. As Jesus offered himself, his body broken, we offer ourselves in our brokenness. As Jesus identified the bread broken and wine poured with his suffering and death. In the Eucharist we remember that obedience, that selfless giving. We share in it. We go out as bread to the world. As bread we may meet rejection, but in faith we share in the joy of the Resurrection. Thanks be to God.
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