Extravagant gestures are the name of the game when it comes to the kingdom of God. Last Sunday, a generous father offered his son prodigious forgiveness, extravagants gifts and a tremendous welcome. No holds barred.
This week, Jesus receives another such extravagant gesture from his friend Mary, who overcome with affection, covers him with an expensive nard. Extravagance.
Nard, it turns out, came all the way from Nepal in the foothills of the Himilayas. The oil would have been hugely expensive. Perhaps the Buddhists who harvested the herb from which nard is made would have been happy to know that their ointment was used to anoint a divine being. The gesture, for them, would have made sense, both in its extravagance, and in Mary’s falling at Jesus feet. Falling at someone’s feet is a sign of devotion, and in the eastern traditions, sometimes touching one’s head to the foot of the guru or the deity was a symbol of union with divine. It’s an image of deep devotion, and of extravagant love, boundless really. Mary is so full of adoration it must spill out. She performed this wildly dramatic act at dinner time.
Perhaps there was an awkwardness among the guests observing her behavior. Maybe Martha and Lazarus were used to Mary’s dramatic gestures and went on about getting the meal. We do know one of the guests was distressed, Judas, who shuddered at the cost of the nard.
In the Hebrew scriptures nard was a symbol of marriage: “nard is referred to in the Song of Songs, as a symbol of the intimate nature of the Bride’s love. This is the point at which relations with her beloved are initiated. When the perfume of nard is named, the bride recognizes her beloved as such.” (a delightful cite explains http://www.biblefragrances.net/nard.html)
Mary’s was an extravagant intimate act, a symbol of profound devotion, a desire to serve Jesus with everything she had to offer. This story, remember, follows Jesus’ miracle of healing when he raised Lazarus form the dead. Mary, Lazarus’ sister, already a close friend of Jesus, had every reason for extravagant gratitude.
How many times in our lives have we felt that kind of devotion? That kind of extravagant gratitude? In Lent extravagant generosity is the source of extravagant gratitiude. Thanksgiving leads to giving, and giving leads to thanksgiving. It’s a gift based economy. For Mary, Jesus had given her life; her brother had been raised, restored. Her extravagant offering was beautiful, but in comparison to the gifts of the Lord of Life, it fell far short. She knew that, and fell onto his feet, wiping them ecstatically with her hair. This is no ordinary devotion.
But Jesus doesn’t ask her to leave, and when others interfere, he retorts “Leave her alone.” He was content with her devotion, and understood its source. Jesus, in turn, also offers a prophecy of his death, interpereting Mary’s act and her jar of nard as something they need to prepare his body for burial.
He knows that those who are about to lose someone need the comfort of farewell, and the comfort of healing afterwards. His ability to recieve graciously such extravagance is a mark of the courtesy of the kingdom. Giving and receiving are interwoven in mutual love, mutual respect, and mutual understanding. So it is with us, in our bodily expression of the church: the communion of saints and sinners, friends, strangers, and family with whom we share our lives. May you love Christ and Christ in your neighbor with all the devotion and extravagant generosity with which Mary loved Jesus.