Lent is the time in the church year when we move toward the cross and, ultimately, to Easter. Lent is 40 days (not counting Sundays) of preparation for the holy celebration. Days to, perhaps, give up something in your life that is getting in the way of your relationship with God. Days to, perhaps, take on a new practice of prayer or reading or worship that will draw you closer to God. Forty days to know that the power of God is with us even in the wilderness.
It strikes me this year that Lent can be an antidote to our tendency—or at least it’s a tendency of mine–to either allow ourselves to be overwhelmed by the negative things in our world or to seek escape from them. Like with the news this week of the school shooting in Florida. The violence is overwhelming. The grief of the students, parents, the whole community, is overwhelming. The anger at politicians who refuse to enact laws that could reduce gun violence is overwhelming. It’s easy to be overwhelmed. It’s also easy—for us, for now—to escape; to switch the TV or radio station when news of the shooting comes on.
I think if we are compassionate people who are paying attention, we will feel overwhelmed sometimes. And if we want to maintain our physical, emotional, mental health, we will turn the news off sometimes. But these two extreme responses, if they are our only responses, can be exhausting.
Lent, it seems to me, is a gift to us in the midst of this cycle of being overwhelmed and needing to escape. Lent is a time when we can practice walking through the wilderness in a different way—a way that does not shut out the negative aspects of the world or let them overwhelm us.
Lent shows us a way that pays attention to the pain and the beauty of the world. A way that seeks the holy path rather than the easy path. A way that acknowledges the power and presence of God in the midst of, in the face of, in spite of the powers of death.
That is what the woman who anoints Jesus is doing. This anonymous, generous, brave and bold woman who walks uninvited into a dinner party just two days before Passover, just about a mile and a half from Jerusalem, where Jesus will be killed.
We don’t know her connection to Jesus, but we can assume she loves him. Because he has healed her, or someone she cares for? Because he has acknowledged her humanity in a culture that mostly denied it? Because he has explained God to her in a way that makes sense? Because his crazy stories make her laugh? . . . We don’t know why, but, for some reason, she loves him.
We don’t know why she pours her expensive oil from her exquisite alabaster jar over Jesus’ head, but we know she is anointing him. Anointing him as king—as the true authority in her life over all those who falsely tried to claim authority over her? Anointing him for healing—because she can see beyond his temple-clearing swagger, that he is scared and his heart is breaking? Anointing him for burial? That’s what Jesus says. We don’t know why she does it, but, for some reason, she anoints him.
We don’t know the whys. But we know the what. The scene is laid before us—some version of it in all four gospels. A woman pouring extravagantly expensive oil on Jesus’ body in the presence of disapproving men.
This bold woman is indeed paying attention to the pain and the beauty of the world. She is indeed following the holy path rather than the easy one—providing a sacred service to Jesus even though it brings—as she must have known it would—reprimands from the dinner guests. She is indeed acknowledging the power and presence of God in the face of the powers of death.
It strikes me how precious and necessary this woman’s ministry to Jesus was. How much he must have needed someone to acknowledge the grief and fear that was his reality in those days between Palm Sunday and Good Friday. How much he, who was always expected to be the healer, must haove needed someone to reach out to him in healing.
This woman, whose name we don’t even know, is the one who recognizes Jesus’ need. She is not overwhelmed by it. She does not run away from it. She does what she can. She offers what she has.
As we remember her, may we go and do likewise.
This post is excerpted from a sermon preached at Peace Mennonite Church in Lawrence, KS, on February 18, 2018.