Well, friends, welcome to Holy Week, a week like no other.
We speak of Advent and Lent being times of reflection. And they are. But Holy Week goes one step further, as we walk alongside Jesus and his friends and followers towards disaster.
In today’s Gospel reading, which actually takes place before the triumph and tumult of Palm Sunday, Jesus is back in Bethany spending some time with his friends Lazarus, Mary and Martha. These three siblings are repeat characters in the Gospels and we see their different personalities shine through. While Mary’s lavish actions garner the attention in this story, all three of them deserve our attention as we start our Holy Week.
The text says:
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. (John 12.1-3).
All three siblings offer something precious to them.
“Martha served.” This could be written on her tombstone. Our every indication from the Gospels is that Martha was a practical, take-charge woman, who showed her love through practical acts of service. When Jesus previously went through Bethany, it was Martha who invited Jesus into their home and who did the grunt work of hospitality (Luke 10.38-42). When Jesus arrived after Lazarus’ death, it was Martha who stormed out of the house to meet him on the road. And now, we simply read, “Martha served.” This is a precious offering of thought, energy and effort. And what a beautiful gift it is.
Lazarus for his part reclined at table with Jesus. Now this likely has a lot to do with gender roles in Roman-occupied Judaea, but for our purposes today, I’d like to offer a different reading. (There is some eisegesis here, but bear with me!) Lazarus, literally more than anyone else, has learned the value of time. Time is limited. His time is limited. And he isn’t going to waste it. It’s interesting that he doesn’t appear in the Luke account of Jesus’ first visit to Bethany. Perhaps he was ‘too busy’ to hang out with an itinerant teacher or felt he had ‘better things to do with his time.’ But now, he’s learned how precious time actually is and is eager to spend it with this Jesus, who is not only a teacher and a friend, but also the man to whom he owes his life. And so, Lazarus offers Jesus the beautiful gift of time.
And finally, there is Mary, the heroine of contemplatives for two millennia. In the Luke story, Mary sits in rapt attention at Jesus’ side. Martha chides her for not helping out with her service and Jesus famously tells Martha that Mary is the one who has it right. When Lazarus dies, while Martha runs out to berate Jesus in her grief, Mary needs to be called out of the house. Her grief and love are quieter, though no less strong, than her sister’s. And now, with Jesus back in her home, she pours out a whole bottle of perfume, which we later learn cost about a year’s wages, onto Jesus’ feet. If Martha’s gift was service and effort, and Lazarus’s was time and attention, Mary’s offering is of adoration and beauty — love’s lavish gift.
No two people are the same, and no two people’s love looks the same. We often forget this and so are prone to judging other people’s offering and love, instead of celebrating these differences.
And so, as we enter into this Holy Week, I encourage us all to think about what we truly value and how we can offer it to God and to one another. What is the lavish gift our love can offer during this strange time, as we both walk with Jesus towards the cross and walk with one another through the fear and uncertainty of the pandemic?
I’d like to end with a beautiful prayer from the Book of Common Prayer:
And here we offer and present unto thee,
O Lord, ourselves, our souls and bodies,
to be a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice unto thee.
And although we are unworthy,
yet we beseech thee to accept this our bounden duty and service,
not weighing our merits, but pardoning our offences;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
to whom, with thee and the Holy Ghost, be all honour and glory,
world without end. Amen.