Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.John 12:1-3
There is a phrase which clergy like to use for the experience of hearing and reflecting on the gospel passages over the next seven days: the journey through Holy Week. It’s an expression that never really resonated with me until at least seminary, or maybe later when I led Holy Week services for the first time. It wasn’t until then that I really got the sense of one story moving through several acts rather than a mash-up of several anecdotes arranged for dramatic effect.
But it’s really all one story, a drama being played out in real time. Fleming Rutledge makes the point that you can tell how much importance the gospel writers put on the events leading up to and including the crucifixion, death, and resurrection of Jesus because they all slow the story way down at this point. Each detail matters, even the weird ones. Especially the weird ones. This story of anointing, as odd as it may sound, is clearly an important detail. Some version of it shows up in all of the gospels, although not all of them include it during Holy Week.
In the Gospel of John, it is the first story of the drama, taking place as Amy-Jill Levine says, at “the First Supper.” This dinner, at the home of Mary, Martha, and the formerly stinky Lazarus, seems to foreshadow everything that is to come. Then again, time can be a squishy thing in the Gospel of John, and there is a fullness and integrity to what takes place that also makes this moment complete all on its own.
It’s funny how one moment of fullness can encapsulate a lifetime of thirst. Jerry Jeff Walker sings about returning to such a moment one morning as a shaft of light drew him back to a brief encounter with a woman named Sally. In that remembrance, the fullness of her presence — her eyes, their conversation, the love they experienced — returned to Jerry Jeff’s consciousness. Of course, the presence of her memory also became a reminder of her physical absence. Still, Walker sings, the persistence of memory “makes me strong,” so that “the love we held so brief, I’d chance again, without regret.”
Rowan Williams writes about the possibility that brief relationships can teach us about the potential for intimacy, with another person and with God. This potential seems to have been realized for Jerry Jeff in his two week encounter with Sally. Something similar is revealed in Jesus’s brief encounter with Mary, something so undeniably real and present that it lingers in the air and nests itself deeply in Jesus through the tragedy of the days to come.