6 They that sow in tears *
shall reap in joy.
7 He that now goeth on his way weeping, and beareth forth good seed, *
shall doubtless come again with joy, and bring his sheaves with him.
Six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus lived, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. 2 Here a dinner was given in Jesus’ honor. Martha served, while Lazarus was among those reclining at the table with him. 3 Then Mary took about a pint[c] of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. 4 But one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, who was later to betray him, objected, 5 “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages.[d]” 6 He did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it. 7 “Leave her alone,” Jesus replied. “It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial. 8 You will always have the poor among you,[e] but you will not always have me.”
Then Jesus six days before the passover came to Bethany, where Lazarus was, which had been dead, whom he raised from the dead. There they made him a supper; and Martha served: but Lazarus was one of them that sat at the table with him. Then took Mary a pound of ointment of spikenard, very costly, and anointed the feet of Jesus, and wiped his feet with her hair: and the house was filled with the odour of the ointment.
Not too many weeks ago we were singing: “Frankincense to offer have I, incense owns a deity nigh, prayer and praising, gladly raising, worship him, God Most High. Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume breathes a life of gathering gloom; sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying, sealed in a stone cold tomb.”
In these few short months, the Three Kings have faded from memory. However, it is well known that various odors do not easily fade. The sense of smell is the most acute in its chemical transference to and from the brain, making the “fragrance memory” a very special gift. Dogs seem to have a special endowment in that regard, and it is said that the canine brain can store over 1,000 fragrances. I was reminded of that while traveling through airports last week, when a TSAgent and his “sniffer” were making the rounds.
It interests me that Pope Francis, retaining the coast of arms he used in his archepiscopal office as Cardinal, has on his shield, a sprig of spikenard, which turns out to be lavender. Unusually, Francis also decided to retain his personal motto: Miserando atque eligendo (“To be shown mercy and chosen”) taken from the 21st homily of Saint Bede, where the vocation of Saint Matthew, the dreaded tax-collector, is referred to. The salient point is that Jesus chose Matthew as his disciple not in spite of, but because of, his being a known sinner. In other words: “he stank to high heaven!”
We are fortunate to worship is a place that still values the “odor of sanctity” and, while some people (including my wife, who grew up with incense) find themselves having allergic reactions, others of us can’t get enough of the stuff. And, of course, there are now “non-allergenic” forms of incense, as with so many other commodities in our hyper-sensitive day and age.
And, speaking of hyper-sensitivity, we cannot help notice that it is Judas who reacts most strenuously to Mary’s act of lavish love and kindness. The sole reason we are given is that Judas is the “money-man” among the disciples, and he’s putting on a good front at showing his concern for expenditures “above and beyond” the cost of caring for the poor, about whom he had no concern whatsoever. All the Gospel accounts of this scene call him out on that point: he could care less for the poor, only for himself.
Sadly, even tragically, Judas is all too representative of those various “bean-counters” within any culture, religious or secular, who feel a certain entitlement of superiority because they have some control over the funding sources. In our own time, this ideology extends to the banks that are “too big to fail” and the gross disparities that now characterize “rich” and “poor” – over which pundits and politicians endlessly wrangle until some of us plug our ears, or “hold our noses” because the entire business stinks to high heaven!
The company gathered around the table in the Gospel story knew that stench only too well. There, in their midst, sat Lazarus. Though assigned no part in the dialogue, his presence is bigger than life. In the preceding chapter, John has recounted the details of his being raised from the dead. His sister’s, Mary and Martha, have both lamented Jesus’ absence when their brother died. Had he been there, “our brother would not have died,” they are quick to tell Jesus, almost in the tone of a rebuke. Jesus weeps.
Now, a few days later, they are all gathered and Lazarus is among them, alive! If ever the Psalmist’s poignant phrase came alive, it is in this scene: “Those who sowed in tears will reap with songs of joy!” Mary’s “costly nard” is an outward and visible sign of that joy – a veritable “my cup runneth over” expression of gratitude for her brother Lazarus’ restoration to life. But even moreso, it demonstrates gratitude for Jesus’ presence in this hour before he too will soon die, and rise again.
How does Mary know? Some people just do. Faith is often characterized as supernatural knowledge. But Mary’s faith is bi-directional: it recapitulates past experience and projects it into future reality. Mary of Bethany, like Mary the Mother of Jesus, simply knows these things, as perhaps many mothers do.
Here I cannot keep from completing a story I shared a few weeks ago, on the Sunday of the Transfiguration. Recalling the near fatal car crash in which my 14 y.o. son sustained a traumatic brain injury, I spoke of his “enlightening” – a medical term my wife and I learned from the neurologists who were treating him – meaning, emerging from deep coma.
Two nights before, while my wife was keeping vigil during our alternating shifts, she had reached a place of profound exhaustion during which, in her prayers, she gave Aaron back to God. We had adopted him 13 years earlier. I had gone to Korea to bring him to his new home and family, and, to my wife Carol, who would be his 4th mother. His birth mother, followed by two foster mothers, left him in what has become known as a “reactive attachment” – namely, even at the age of one year, he no longer “trusted” his principal care-giver. This problem has been cited in countless “evidence based” studies of adopted children, even as young as few months old.
So, for most of his life with us, Aaron “resisted” my wife’s love – he didn’t bond with her. We managed and he thrived, not without considerable effort and anxiety. But as he entered puberty, problems exacerbated. [Remember Jesus at 12, skipping off to be in his Father’s House, while his parents frantically searched for him?] Now, at 14, his life seemed to be slipping away. That night at his bedside, surrounded by the antiseptic smells to which she was much accustomed, as a nurse, Carol surrendered, not for the first time, but very possibly for the last.
Were she here to recount what happened, she’d tell you that she heard God say: “I’m giving Aaron the choice; to come home to me, or to return to you. He will choose soon.” Three days later he did, and today at age 30, he is a happily married man gainfully employed and grateful to be alive. We call him our Lazarus!
Lazarus had a similar choice. When Jesus called him: “Lazarus, come out!” it was up to Lazarus to choose how to respond. When he came out of the tomb, against all protests that there would be a stench, Jesus turned to the crowd assembled there and said, “Now you unbind him from the graveclothes!”
It is for the community to set him free from any residual bondage to death. Yes, Lazarus will die again, and so will my son. So will each one of us. In the meantime, there is important life to be lived in the knowledge that death has done its worst. Again, the Psalmist gets it right: “those who sow in tears will reap with songs of joy!”
Lazarus’s presence at the table in today’s Gospel prompts Mary to anoint Jesus without delay. She has known the sting of death; her brother sits there as a living reminder. In taking action when she does— and not delaying — she transforms the smell of nard from that of death to that of life. She pours out the oil precisely at the time when people won’t understand just why. It will be seen as an eccentric extravagance. But in time they will understand that this anointing is a protest against the natural order of things; it is a protest against death itself.
Against all propriety, wiping Jesus’ feet with her hair, Mary ensures that the fragrance will linger in the days to come. This memory will cling to her when her friend Jesus is arrested in the middle of the night, convicted on trumped-up charges, and pours out his life and forgiveness on the cross.
What is important for us is to recognize that these “dyings and risings” occur much more often than we realize, within the hearts and souls of countless thousands; I dare say, some of us right here this morning. Whether we are conscious of it or not, like Lazarus, we are given occasions to choose life over death when Jesus calls us to “come out” of our tombs, be they of our own making (the result of poor choices in the past), be they circumstantial (situations into which life has thrust us over our heads), or more likely, be they some combination of the two.
Tombs with the stench of death surround us on every side. Perhaps it’s keeping up appearances in a failed relationship or career path; maybe it’s addictive behavior that diminishes our best selves and jeopardizes the health and well being of others; maybe it is something as simple as pretending we can get through life without any help from anyone.
In this final week of Lent, consider the tombs you inhabit; consider the habits and practices that may be keeping you from “coming out” into the healing light of day when Jesus calls. Each one of us has one or more places where we’re hiding from the fullness of our potential. God has given us to one another to be a community of faith where the grave-clothes of anger, resentment, and bitterness are unbound.
For we who were dead are alive, and we who were lost have been found. “Those who sow in tears will reap with songs of joy!