Two images, and a reflection on John 12:1-8
The first image is of Katie Paterson’s ‘The Moment,’ commissioned by the National Glass Centre and currently on display at Sunderland Minster. Over the course of fifteen minutes, cosmic dust older than our sun flows through the carefully calibrated aperture in the neck of a glass timer, inviting the onlooker to contemplate our place within the vastness of time and space.
The second image is a detail from a stained-glass window by Leonard Evetts, made for the Lady Chapel at St Nicholas’ Church, Sunderland. The window presents Christ on the cross, which is stylistically transformed into the Communion chalice. The detail shows the stream of blood flowing from Jesus’ pierced feet.
The Gospel According to John recounts that Jesus was guest of honour at a dinner at the home of his dear friends, Martha, Mary and Lazarus. Not long before, Lazarus had died; and some seventy-two hours later, Jesus had called him out from Sheol, where the dead sleep with their ancestors, back to the land of the living. Lazarus was among the guests, Martha served the meal, and Mary, well, Mary poured out costly anointing-oil, originating from the Himalayas, all over Jesus’ feet, soaking also into the ground.
This was a remarkable family. Three adult siblings, living together. The sisters had never married. Lazarus, noted as a friend of Jesus, is never recorded as speaking, not once, in any of the Gospels. Some scholars suggest that he had some learning disability, perhaps connected to a physical disability. Mary could not marry, because a younger sister could not marry before her older sister. Martha could not marry, because she was responsible for a brother who would never live independently. Lazarus could not marry, because he could not support a wife. And so, after the death of their parents, these three remained, each one pouring out their life for the others. Costly. At times, too great a cost. Mary’s frustration played out in refusing to help her sister. Martha’s frustration played out in angry words. And yet, they are one. There is no sigh of relief when Lazarus dies, no welcome release from the burden of duty. They are diminished; and then they, this three-who-are-also-one, are restored.
Jesus is reclining at the table, legs stretched out behind him—that is how they ate—and Mary pours out her perfume on his feet. It is a myrrh, like that presented by the Magi after Jesus’ birth, used in the preparation of the dead for burial. And Mary will rub it into his skin with her hair; but some will flow onto the ground: a libation poured out for the dead. And Judas moves to put Mary in her place.
Jesus replies, Leave her alone. His choice of words are ones sometimes used, in other contexts, to speak of freeing a slave or writing a certificate of divorce. The point is clear: Who do you think you are? This woman is not answerable to you for her actions. She is under no obligation to you whatsoever. But Jesus continues, let her go, so that for the day of my burial she may keep watch over (or guard) it (that is, what remained of the perfume). [Without justification, the NRSVA reads ‘she bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial,’ admitting in a footnote that the words ‘she bought it’ are not there in the Greek.] Keep watch, Mary.
It is possible that this costly ointment was Mary’s inheritance, from her parents. Given her in the expectation that she would outlive her older sister and her disabled brother, that she would be the one to prepare the other members of her family for burial. But when we give a gift, we surrender our right to determine what becomes of it. And for Mary, something has changed, not least because Lazarus has had his share of the inheritance in advance, and yet is some-miraculous-how here, now, at this very table.
Mary pours out her perfume, knowing what the others still refuse to know, that Jesus’ death is now imminent; and daring to know what the others still refuse to dare to know, that he has repeatedly claimed that on the third day, seventy-two hours later, give or take, he would return.
From the moment we are born, our lives flow out, until the day we return, ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Cosmic dust flowing through a clear glass. Blood flowing from an open wound. Perfume flowing from a jar. There is nothing we can do to hold back the flow. We can only choose to resent that flow, or to rejoice in it. To try (futile attempt) to keep hold of others, to keep hold over others, who have no obligation to us whatsoever—whether they should outlive us, or we outlive them—or to be moved by the awesome wonder of existence, that we should be at all, for a moment, before we return to cosmic dust, turned in the careful hands of the King of the Universe.