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 this woman in our story 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 try 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. An uninvited 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.
This woman is not overwhelmed by the impending death of this rabbi that she loves. I mean, she may feel overwhelmed, but she is not overwhelmed to the point of inaction. She faces the reality of the situation and takes action—a small and holy action she is able to take. Mark’s version of this story is almost identical to Matthew’s, but in Mark Jesus lists among the reasons the men should not trouble the woman: “she has done what she could.”
Isn’t that at the heart of not being overwhelmed—doing what we can? In one sense, this woman’s act of anointing Jesus is not a powerful act; it does not stop the authorities from arresting and crucifying Jesus. But in another sense, it is powerful because it bears witness to the presence of God in the midst of the fear and violence. She does what she can and Jesus commends her for it.
This past week, I was meeting with my new libertarian friend about the panel we were both on yesterday regarding jail expansion. (In case you didn’t know, libertarians hate incarceration almost as much as they hate excessive taxes.) At one point in the conversation, I briefly mentioned the current presidential administration and we figured out that both of us are so involved in this particular local issue because it feels like something we can do. We feel overwhelmed and helpless about national politics, so we find something smaller, something closer, to do.
Lent is, in part, about the spiritual discipline of not being overwhelmed. And also, as I mentioned, about not running away.
In anointing Jesus, this woman faces the reality of his impending death—a reality that the disciples refuse to acknowledge, no matter how many times Jesus tells them he will suffer and die. She could have stayed home—she wasn’t even invited to the dinner. She could have kept the expensive oil as a family treasure, to use on the body of a family member in the future—perhaps someone who would die of natural causes at an acceptably old age. We don’t even know this woman’s name; she’s not a key player. She certainly didn’t have to insert herself into Jesus’ story of suffering and violence. But she did. She refused to run away; she refused to escape the grief she felt about what was about to happen to this man she loved.
As we travel together through this week with Jesus, this week between Palm Sunday and Good Friday, I realize 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. Someone to reach out in healing to the one who was always expected to be the healer.
Here’s something interesting about the narratives we have of the week before Jesus’ crucifixion: there are no specific stories of Jesus healing people. I know, because when Andrea and I planned for Lent, she suggested we begin Lent with anointing and I said I’d preach on one of the healings Jesus did that week. Because the main thing Jesus does in the gospels is heal people. It never occurred to me that there were no stories of healing. I couldn’t believe it when I went to choose scriptures for this week and couldn’t find any. I scoured all four gospels, from Palm Sunday to the crucifixion. I found one verse, after Jesus clears the temple in Matthew: “The blind and lame came to him in the temple and he cured them.”
That’s it. In this week before the crucifixion, Jesus probably still heals people, but his identity is not as a healer. His identity is primarily as a teacher. And his identity is as one who needs healing. Needs anointing.
And this woman, whose name we don’t even know, is the one who recognizes Jesus’ need. She doesn’t run away. She is not overwhelmed. She does what she can. She offers what she has. She pours the precious oil over his head and anoints him.