I want to know Christ and the power of His resurrection and the sharing of His sufferings by becoming like Him in His death. (Philippians 3.8)
Center of Everything
If our lives were bookshelves, where would the volume called My Faith be? Would it stand on such a tall shelf that retrieving it requires too much effort? Would it get tucked between other familiar titles—My Family, My Job, What I Do for Fun—where it competes for our attention and often is jostled out of the way as we reach for something else? Would it be somewhere in all of these stories of our lives, yet it would take some looking to find it? Would it be stacked nearby, in the pile of books we intend to thumb through when we find the time?
Or would My Faith rest at the center of everything, easily within reach, its covers barely able to contain pages swollen from overuse, the copy smeared from constant highlighting, the margins tattooed with notes and question marks and exclamation points? Would it be so vital to everything we do that it never makes it to the bookshelf at all? Is it the one book we carry with us at all times, no matter where we go or what we do?
Sunday’s New Testament selections (John 12.1-8; Philippians 3.4-14) portray two people whose editions of My Faith are veritable forces that propel their lives. In John, we see Mary, the sister of Jesus’s close friend, Lazarus, do something that seems utterly senseless, yet makes perfect sense. In Philippians, we hear Paul explain his approach to life. Again, what he says sounds illogical. But his reasoning is solid.
Mary’s story is remembered for several reasons: her extravagant behavior, which comes out of nowhere; Judas’s exaggerated outrage, which camouflages ulterior motives; and Jesus’s defense of Mary, which, if we misread it, is somewhat confusing. And the event’s drama is magnified by its setting, a dinner party. Jesus and the disciples are headed for Jerusalem, where—unbeknownst to everyone but Him—their travels will end. They stop at Bethany, a prosperous outlying village, to visit with Lazarus and his sisters. While Martha puts dinner on the table and Lazarus hosts his guests, Mary appears with a pound of nard, a costly perfume made from oil pressed out of the roots of spikenard, a flowering plant from the Valerian family. Nard is primarily used to anoint corpses, as its sedative properties (like those in today’s Valerian root extract) are said to enhance the deceased’s restfulness. Mary empties the nard onto Jesus’s feet and wipes off the excess with her hair. Her actions are alarming on many levels.
Most obvious, of course, is the expensiveness of her gesture—which is what angers Judas. He protests her wastefulness, saying she could have sold the perfume and fed poor people with the proceeds. (The writer of John is skeptical about his motives, however, saying that, as treasurer of Jesus’s ministry, he skimmed donations.) Furthermore, Mary’s behavior is totally inappropriate at a dinner party. Bringing nard to the table introduces an ominous air to a festive situation; its association with funerals cannot be overlooked. Then, anointing Jesus and wiping His feet with her hair crosses numerous social boundaries: male-female, life-death, intimate-public, leader-follower. Everything about this is most peculiar, unlike anything else we see in the Gospels.
So Judas’s shock is understandable, even if his motives are corrupt. No doubt everyone—other than Jesus and Mary—is appalled by her actions. Jesus’s reply to Judas’s complaint doesn’t ease the tension. “Leave her alone,” he says. “She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of My burial. You will always have the poor with you, but you do not always have Me.” (John 12.7-8) We can read His response any number of ways that miss His point. Is Jesus placing His personal comfort above the poor’s needs? Is He saying our commitment to end poverty is futile? Is He excusing what looks like conspicuous consumption? Why would Mary to bring augurs of His death to the table in the first place? Does she know something that no one else but Jesus realizes? Apparently, she does. In very short order, Jesus will be illegally arrested, tried, and executed.
It is vital for Mary to express her faithfulness to Him before He dies. She anoints His feet, because they are about to travel a rugged road that leads to Jerusalem and takes a sharp turn up Calvary’s hill. But why does she towel His feet with her hair? Jesus grasps the symbolism of her gesture. In physically reclaiming the excess, she shares in His death. It’s about more than staying with Jesus until the end; active faith emits intentions to remain with Christ always, in life, death, and life after death. That is, most certainly, a shocking confession.
The Story of Our Lives
Unfortunately, John doesn’t give Mary a chance to explain. If she could speak, she would echo Paul’s statement in Philippians 3.8: “I want to know Christ and the power of His resurrection and the sharing of His sufferings by becoming like Him in His death.” Once again, we see a disciple at Jesus’s feet, pouring out his soul, desiring to get so close to Jesus that he’s inseparable from Him. Like Mary, Paul recognizes that resurrection is a miraculous outcome that overthrows the brutality of earlier suffering and the finality of death. (We cannot rise from what we do not experience.) Paul opens this passage with startling bravado. “If anyone has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more,” he brags in verse 4. He lists all the ways he’s superior, concluding, “as to righteousness under the law, [I am] blameless.” (v6) For someone constantly urging his readers to stay humble, his swagger seems wildly inappropriate. Yet Paul redeems himself in the next verse: “Whatever gains I had, these I regard as loss because of Christ.”
In Mary and Paul, we see two individuals of notable means and privilege. Neither is born into poverty. Both come from strong families and enjoy the advantages of status. Neither really has anything to prove in society’s eyes. Still, both implicitly understand that faith matters most of all. It is so central to their lives that they keep it in handy reach, using it to frame everything they do and say. Do they realize this will alarm some and anger others? Of course, they do. But their longing to know Christ in every way—in suffering, death, and resurrection—surpasses any concerns about how they’re viewed. They count everything but their faith as a loss. They know that following Christ through sufferings and death will bring new life to every aspect of their existence.
Which brings us back to the bookshelf. When My Faith becomes the most important volume in our lives, other books obtain greater meaning and clarity. In our homes and families, at work and play, we experience resurrection power by proclaiming victory over suffering and death through faith. The world will continue to turn. There will always be poor people. There will always be rich ones. There will always be cruel people. There will always be kind ones. But we who cherish faith most of all are unshaken by any of this, because our lives hew to a different story that grasps the relationship between loss and resurrection. In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul poeticizes this, using a seed as his metaphor. He says: “What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power.” (v42-43) That’s how faith seizes control of life’s sorrows and setbacks. That’s the story of our lives.
In anointing Jesus’s feet and wiping up the excess perfume with her hair, Mary shares in His death and resurrection. That is her story. And if we make faith central to our lives, it becomes our story, too.