Sermon for Sunday, March 13, 2016
Were there adults in our parish seeking Baptism, and if our parish had a fully-developed, two- to three-year catechumenate process to help them be prepare, today would be the last “normal” Sunday of preparation before entering Holy Week and before their Baptism at the Easter Vigil. Today – after years of preparation – these men and women would be standing at the threshold of Baptism.
The readings today reflect the hopes we would have for these about-to-be-Christians. For example, we hope these men and women, over the past two or three years, would have shed and left behind all that might preclude the creation of something new. As Isaiah writes: “Do not remember the former things… I am about to do a new thing.” We hope that, even though they may have “sown with tears,” now they “reap with songs of joy,” with the Psalmist. Or consider Paul in Philippians. By this time in their journey, we hope these men and women desire intimate knowledge of Christ: “I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.”
These readings were chosen for today – the last “normal” Sunday before their Baptism – to speak to our, the Church’s hopes, for these new members. Which are really hopes for ourselves. For it is in initiation rites – such as Baptism – that we express who we are, what we desire, and who we hope to become.
Today’s gospel lesson tells us something about who we are, what we desire and who we hope to become. We’ll get to those hopes in just a moment, but first, a little background on this reading… Today’s gospel lesson, “the anointing at Bethany,” is one of the few stories that appear in all four gospels. Sometimes – as in Luke – the story of the anointing appears toward the beginning of the Gospel; in the other gospels it is toward the end. Sometimes (in Matthew, Mark and Luke) the story takes place in the house of Simon; in John, it takes place in the home of Lazarus. Sometimes it is Jesus’ head that is anointed (Matthew and Mark); other times, Jesus’ feet are anointed (Luke and John). Probably because of these variations, the tradition understands Jesus to have been anointed twice, first early on in his ministry, and then again just before his crucifixion. And – because the woman, “Mary,” is named in John, and because Mary Magdalene features prominently in other gospel stories– the tradition understands both anointings to have been done by Mary Magdalene. Given all this, we can begin to imagine and piece together a narrative of Mary’s life that brought her to Christ and to these anointings…
Though Mary appears for the first time in scripture at the first anointing, I imagine there was at least one previous, unrecorded encounter between Mary and Jesus. In this first, unrecorded encounter Mary – and this follows Luke’s account – was a “sinner;” tradition assumes she was a harlot. I imagine Mary was drawn to Jesus because there was something about him… There was a kindness in his eyes, a gentleness in his voice, a certain humility, and at the same time a dignity, about him. And there was absolutely no sense of judgment against her. Jesus’ acceptance of her, his seeing her as a whole person with feelings and fears and woundedness, left her profoundly touched. She couldn’t stop thinking about him. And she knew that Jesus knew – that Jesus knew all about her. Yet he treated her with acceptance, love, respect and kindness.
Jesus’ acceptance and love caused in her great compunction that led to their second encounter, recorded in Luke’s gospel:
And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment. She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair.
This encounter was an encounter of tears and remorse. Mary could not bring herself to face Jesus, but “stood behind him… weeping.” She could not bring herself to stand before Jesus, but remained “at his feet.” But in this encounter, Jesus not only pronounced her forgiven but affirmed her gift for loving:
I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love.
Today’s gospel lesson brings us to their third encounter, an encounter of gratitude and love. (The earlier encounter was of tears and remorse; this one, of gratitude and love.) Gratitude for Jesus’ acceptance of her – he knew all about her and still accepted her – and love because Jesus had forgiven her: “Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love.”
Were we to have adults preparing for Baptism, and were we to have a years’-long catechumenate process to help them prepare, “the anointing at Bethany” would help give words to the hopes we might have for these men and women. I can imagine us saying to them: “We hope you know that, no matter what the past has been, yet God ‘is about to do a new thing.’ We hope that, though in the past there may have tears and remorse, now you will know gratitude and love. We hope you know how much Jesus loves you. We hope that you let yourself love him in return. We hope you know that, though the woman in today’s gospel lesson is named ‘Mary,’ yet she is really you. Like Mary, you have been drawn to Christ – there is something about him that touched you. Like Mary, Jesus’ love and acceptance of you may have led to compunction, and possibly tears and remorse. Like Mary, you have come to a place of gratitude for what Jesus has done, and maybe you, like Mary, are filled with love for him. Which is why you want to be a member of Christ’ Body and are coming to be Baptized”
The hopes we might express to the men and women preparing for Baptism are really hopes for ourselves. For it is in initiation rites – such as Baptism – that we express who we are, what we desire, and who we hope to become.
I wonder, what about you? Who would you say you are? What do you desire. Who do you hope to become? I have a hunch that as we, like Mary, let ourselves be drawn to Jesus, our encounter with Jesus will be similar to hers. If we let ourselves, we will see his kindness and gentleness, his humility and dignity. We will see that he in no way judges but accepts us. We will know his forgiveness and love, and we will love him in return. And we will discover that we, like Mary, are great lovers. Having met Jesus, having known his love – having been flooded with his love! – we cannot help but love others in return. Which our broken, fallen world so desperately needs.