Sunday, March 6, 2016

John 12.1-9: Leave Her Alone

Lent 5C's gospel reading is John's version of a time when Jesus was anointed. John 12:1-9 places Jesus at dinner in Bethany. Lazarus is at the table, his sister Martha is bustling somewhere between the kitchen and the table, and their sister Mary walks into the room to do an amazing thing.

The story is told below in a painting by Frank Wesley (b. 1923 in India). While many artists have chosen to paint this scene (it's reasonably common as a wall painting in monastic refectories - dining halls - because it takes place around a dinner), Wesley's version offers a couple of insights that are missed in larger, grander works like Veronese's and Subleyras'.

The first thing that Wesley's painting offers is the absolute assertion that this is an intimate act. Unlike other paintings where the female figure may be slightly bowing toward Jesus or gesturing toward a box or bowl, in this painting Mary's left cheek is touching Jesus' left foot. She is prostrate, gently cradling Jesus' foot in two hands. She is not indicating that Jesus should wash the dust from his own feet. Rather she is showing what ministry may in fact look like.

A second insight afforded by Wesley's painting is the subject's complete disregard for anything or anyone that is outside Mary and Jesus are not the only people in the room, and this is not the only activity ongoing. . Imagine the empty plates making noise as they are carried from on the table or the clink of dishes and the splashing of water as cooking utensils are being cleaned in a nearby room. There is the color of the clothing worn by people around the table. Then Mary comes in the room and there is the cracking of the jar and the aroma of the nard as it fills the room. Imagine all that. You'll have to imagine that if you want to see it, because it just isn't important to Wesley's Mary. She has not been deterred, and she will be distracted. Even Jesus is only important as far as his feet go.

The parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15; Lent 4C) showcased the extravagant spending of a young man and the extravagant love of a father. In this text, Mary continues the theme of extravagance in the form of costly gestures involving expensive ointment. Generally we think of Lent as a season of deprivation rather than extravagance, but these texts speak of generosity. It is not an inappropriate extravagance, Leave her alone, Jesus said. Now is no time for frugality. This extravagance on earth is participating with the work of heaven.

For the Frank Wesley painting, see:
For the alabaster jar, see:
For thoughts on Isaiah 43:16-21, click here.

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