LET ME BEGIN this evening by asking you all a question: when was the last time something extraordinary and unexpected happened to you? If not yourself then someone you know, and something you saw. Take a moment to recall it, shut your eyes, picture it in your mind, feel the emotions, smell the smells, relive it. In a similar way we should ﬁnd it both strange and surprising to be confronted with this picture from this evening’s gospel. Jesus, throughout his earthly ministry, has shown particular care for the poor, the needy, and the outcast, they have been fed by the disciples at their own expense and healed and welcomed by Jesus: they see the kingdom of God in their midst. They are to be loved and cared for by us as Christians.
And so, the picture of a lavish expense, of a reckless generosity, strikes us as odd. It goes against the grain, it’s almost as though there’s something wrong here. We should be alert to the fact that something important is happening in the gospel account. Mary’s anointing of Jesus is done in preparation for his burial, after his suffering and death on the cross, before he is laid in a stranger’s tomb. Straight after his triumphant entry into Jerusalem the day before, on a donkey just like his mother on the way to Bethlehem, or the Holy Family going into exile in Egypt, Our Lord’s mind and heart are set on the events of Good Friday – and this is exactly where our hearts and minds should be too. The King of the Jews will reign triumphantly from the Cross: as both priest and victim, the Lamb of God (who will be sacrificed upon the altar of the cross to bring about the true Passover of God’s people). He is prepared for his death and burial with the same substance which was burnt upon the altar of incense in the temple, symbolising the fact that Christ’s service, suffering, and death will be a fragrant offering to God the Almighty Father.
The cost of the ointment which Mary used was (in rough terms) a year’s wages for an agricultural labourer. Taking something worth ten or twelve thousand pounds in today’s money to anoint someone’s feet is an act of reckless generosity. As such, it points towards the outpouring of God’s love upon his world – it shows us the lengths to which God in Christ is willing to go to save and heal a world wounded by Sin – nothing is too costly, no expense is spared for the love of us, sinful humanity. These days of holy week are unique, and the sacrifice of Christ upon the cross is a singular event, whose effects are felt through time.
To reinforce the importance of the events leading up to our Lord’s passion and the passion itself, this week we find ourselves reading with the Church a number of portions of the book of the prophet Isaiah and in particular, those sections known as the four servant songs. In these the prophet describes the persecution, suffering and death of the servant of the Lord. The church has always seen these passages of Scripture as pointing toward Jesus, his suffering and death. His passion is prefigured in these prophetic utterances. We see in the events of this week a rollercoaster of emotion, which starts with a triumphant entry into the Messiah into Jerusalem only to end in trial, torture, and death.
In this evening’s first reading we see the silence of our Lord before the high priest and before Pilate, it is a picture of someone filled with God’s spirit, the chosen one in whom God delights. The events of the passion will show us both what God’s love and God’s justice are. What this will bring about is the healing of the nations: the opening of the eyes of the blind, the freeing of captive humanity from the prison of sin, from the darkness of our dungeon into the new light and life of Easter. That such wonderful things should be inaugurated by an act which mirrors God’s reckless and overflowing generosity is not that surprising at all.
It also teaches us that our human response to God in worship should likewise be extravagant, mirroring God’s response to us. Our worship should be costly in terms of time and effort and expense. We should try to give our best in every sense, solely for the glory of God, and to mark things out as a special, extraordinary, not of this world. As we gather around the altar to be fed by the Lord with his body and blood, we partake in the one, perfect, sufficient sacrifice of Calvary, made ever-present on the altars of God’s church. We are nourished and transformed by God’s saving love. So then, as we walk in our Lord’s footsteps, let us pray that he will nourish as in both word and sacrament, perfecting our human nature by his grace, and enabling us to live his risen life in thought and word and deed that the world may believe