On the mornings that we have our Parents & Tots group at our parish, a few of the Moms (myself included) try to go to daily Mass with our kids. It's one of the little ways we're working at growing in faith together. We're lucky enough that our Pastor never pulls any punches for the weekday crowd, and consistently delivers thought provoking homilies that give us lots of material for our discussions in our group after Mass.
Today, the Gospel reading was the all too familiar story of the woman pouring out the expensive oil on Jesus' feet and then wiping it with her hair. I've heard that story thousands of times and always find it beautiful. Ever since our reconciliation service a few weeks ago, I've tried to follow our Pastor's advice to listen to those familiar stories with fresh ears. The kids were surprisingly quiet (thanks to a few extra adults there to help out!), so I found myself hearing details of the story I'd never heard before.
First of all, the woman was Mary, the sister of Lazarus. John the Evangelist makes a point of saying that this meeting was after the resurrection of Lazarus. Jesus had joined she and her sister Martha in weeping at the tomb of their brother, and then raised him from the dead. Her brother who she clearly loved, was given back to her in this life. The cycle of death was broken before her eyes. Faced with a gift of that magnitude, how would you respond? According to my Pastor's research, the nard Mary spilled poured out on Jesus' feet would be worth $25,000 by today's valuation. The people who witnessed this extravagance on Mary's part were scandalized (some might say rightly so) at what they considered a waste. But to Mary, that gift was an expression of her worship. She could not deny Jesus was God after seeing her brother come back from the dead. Jesus had conquered death, what was a mere $25k worth of ointment? How could earthly goods compare to that gift?
After Mary had given her small token of love to Christ, we hear Judas complaining that the money would have been better spent on the poor. Here again I heard a line I had never noticed before at John 12:6:
|This he said, not that he cared for the poor but because he was a thief, and as he had the money box he used to take what was put into it.|
Rather than being a man concerned for the poor and exasperated at the wastefulness, I saw for the first time another side of Judas. He, who had seen Jesus perform so many miracles, used the gift of this woman to attempt to stir up scandal. Surely the others in the room were already thinking the same thing, but I wonder at the image of one of the apostles openly criticising her. Mary's gift was an expression of her faith in Christ's divinity, but Judas' words show how closed his heart truly was to what was before him in the person of Jesus. Judas is shown to be a thief, riding on Jesus' coattails to make money off the backs of those generous enough to give money to the apostles for the service of the poor and weak. It's easy to see why he would have been upset over the loss of the 300 denarii when not too many days later he was willing to sell Jesus out for a mere 30 coins. Here he was, calling out Mary for his own gain, when he not only wouldn't give a penny of his own money for the poor, but was even taking from money given for their care.
How often is the Church criticized for its beautiful buildings and art, saying that all of it should be sold off to serve the poor? (If we can ignore the fact for the just a moment that they only people who could afford the art being preserved in the Vatican Museum (just for a small example) would be the super rich who would be acquiring that art as material possessions rather than for the service of the poor... And if we could also ignore that selling off all the earthly goods of the Church would only be a temporary fix and wouldn't actually solve the real problem of poverty...) People continue to be scandalized by the beauty of the Church, and the way we adorn her. Part of that comes from the fact that, like Judas, they don't recognize the divinity of Christ and the miraculous beauty of the Church He established. If the Church is just a social club or maybe a charitable society, having a golden Chalice and marble statues is excessive. On the other hand, if the Church is the Bride of Christ, the site of a daily wedding banquet to celebrate the Bridegroom who gave His life for His Bride, how can we not adorn it? Yes, we have a duty and obligation to give service to the poor. This is part of the daily mission of the Church. At the end of the day we should seek to ease the suffering of the poor as much as we can, and attempt to feed the deep spiritual hunger of the poor in spirit as well. That does not mean we should deny Christ honour and glory in what earthly ways we can. Our Church is a house for the Eucharist, the true presence of Christ. We lay Him in safety in our Tabernacle. If Christ is truly in our Church, should we not like Mary adorn what is at His feet in a way befitting our belief of His Presence and Divinity?
We are left knowing that we must keep a delicate balance of praising God and serving the needs of those around us. It of course burns a little to hear the constant criticism of people in the First World who would happily see the Church stripped of all its finery, but wouldn't give up their earthly goods to serve the poor man they meet on their own street. Just like Judas, they'd use whatever means necessary to criticize those who love Christ. They are more than happy to use the poor as pawns to try and scandalize the sensibilities of those who are not yet convinced of the divinity of Christ. The Devil always finds his way to quietly whisper something that sounds like truth but then to twist it to tarnish our vision. Yes, serving the poor is an essential part of being Christian. Yet, what makes us Christian is not our service, but our faith in the divinity of Christ. We are called to remember and celebrate the gift of Life given to us through Christ's sacrifice on the Cross. Like Mary, sometimes words don't seem a great enough gesture for that gift of Life. Sometimes we want to spill precious oils at the foot of the Lord, regardless of what those around us may think.