It sounds like a catechism question, “who washed feet first?” Maria in The Sound of Music as a nun was an absurdity. But, Maria as a nanny and later wife of Captain von Trapp was a thing of beauty. Though, this post isn’t about Maria von Trapp. No, it’s about Mary of Bethany before Jesus was crucified.
So, there was one before Jesus who washed the feet of another. She washed His feet and pointed to an answer to a persistent question: “what do you do with a thick-necked people who have continued to sin in spite of everything done for several thousand years of recorded history?” If all the sane answers have failed, could it be that an insane answer might be the right one? It doesn’t fit that a bastard son of a poor carpenter from Nazareth could be the Messiah.
It fits that a subject of a king would wash his feet. It fits that anointing the feet of Christ with perfume is a sign of his authority as king of the Jews. The resurrected kingdom we got was not one that was victorious over Rome right then. Constantine’s deathbed conversion came later. In the normal course of events it is expected that the king’s subjects would show him their devotion through acts like this.
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Next, it is not fit that a woman would wash the feet of a man with her hair. That is a scandalous act. Perfume as expensive as nard would not be used to wash anyone’s feet. Judas is right to be shocked that a pound of this perfume would be wasted on such a decadent act.
Though, Jesus is not Caesar. He isn’t Herod or Pilote. He is a poor carpenter born to Mary under suspicious circumstances. Many whispered that the virgin birth story is a cover for Mary cuckholding Joseph. Judas said that selling the nard would raise money to do so much more good. Christ praises Mary for her act of devotion. This Nazarene speaks with the authority of a Rabbi but he is just a carpenter’s boy born out of wedlock. It is outrageous, it is absurd, that Mary of Bethany would use a pound of expensive perfume, her uncovered hair, and her tears to wash the feet of Jesus of Nazareth because Lazarus lives.
That is Absurd
Christ is absurd. He is a king that died. He is a martyr that lived. We say he descended into hell and took our sins with him. Did we stop being evil? No. An enterprising group of Twitter users sabotaged Microsoft’s “Tay“. Terrorists bombed Brussel during this year’s Holy Week. It would be easy to fill more than 1500 words surveying the news for all the ways in which we are evil.
I would be far from the first if I dove into the oft-asked, perpetual question, “why do bad things happen to good people?” Let’s leave it at this: absurd things happen that defy easy answers. My king, my Jesus, was killed by the Romans at the request of fellow Jews because of claims that he had spoken blasphemy. He said absurd things.
This is an absurd anointing of a king. It is crazy. It is scandalous. Judas Iscariot is right to be shocked. Six days before Passover she does this in the presence of Lazarus and others. If Jesus were a candidate for presidency this anointing, known, would be above the fold and push off the current kerfuffle over claims that Ted Cruz had 5 affairs. Why, then, would we keep this story, this scandalous narrative, in our sacred text, for over two millennia after Christ left us?
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Before that, for as long as we have recorded history, kings and democracies had failed us. People worshiped God and gods then. The Romans had their pantheon of gods, including many adopted from the Greeks. The Jews had their God of Abraham and the law. The morale was not improving in spite of continued beatings. We have laws, many, many laws. The laws don’t matter. Our Muslim brethren enforce those laws through brutal consequences. Brutal consequences only matter to some. To others they are just the price of living. Evil persists, sin persists, despite everything. We have kings. We have democracies. We have every stripe of economic system imagined. Crime exists. Disparity and poverty exist.
Mary Did You Know?
Mary did not know that she was washing the feet of a king. She knew that this wretch, this bastard carpenter’s boy, had said some absurd and amazing things. She had heard of miracles, perhaps seen them. Lazarus was there eating with them. Who is Lazarus? Go look it up. Her heart so filled with devotion, with a desire to honor this man reclining at table, that she annoyed Martha and scandalized Judas, with a decadent act such as this.
When it is all crazy, when all the philosophers, physicians, lawyers, kings, senators, rabbis, all their words, and soldiers failed to stop the ways in which we are evil to each other, what is God to do? Nothing has worked. He destroyed the world in a flood. While Moses prayed we made a golden calf. God gave Moses a set of laws and appointed the Levites as judges and religious leaders. He answered our cry for a King with Saul, David and Solomon. King David slept with another man’s wife. He sent us prophets and judges. He parted the Red Sea. He fed us manna and pigeons and caused water to flow from a rock. We still sinned. We still sin.
When millions of lambs, doves, calves are sacrificed and the good, law abiding people do the right thing and still, it is not enough. Evil persists. Lucifer still wins sometimes.
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What is God to do with us? What is he to do with his thick-necked people who build idols and worship Baal? What is he to do with us when he scatters us and scrambles our tongues so that brother cannot understand brother and yet, we violate every letter of every law and build temples to calves.
There are only two things left to do. Sound the trumpets and lay waste to His creation. Or, perform an astounding act of mercy and be born a baby and crucified. Christ is either who he said he was and we are truly forgiven or he is one of a legion of crackpots who lied to us.
When the only thing left to do is an absurd act of grace, can you not grant me that it is possible God would then martyr himself, wipe the record clean, and begin again with a ragtag bunch of dissident Jews who claim that a bastard carpenter killed by the Romans was the Messiah prophesied in the Nevim? No? Whatever.
The crazy continued. The absurdities continued. Today, millions upon millions celebrate the life and death of Christ the King, Jesus of Nazareth, whose story is absurd. We are countless lights, countless salts, working to be stones of the resurrected temple. We start with grace, with knowing that we are not only our past. We live as we understand Christ would have us live. As absurdity has abounded, so has countless miracles and acts of love and mercy.
I don’t have space here to recount the infinite ways our absurd story has brought light and salt to this world. Yes, the church, churchianity and all the other names spat out in anger of us, has committed atrocities. We are not immune to evil. While I acknowledge that, I ask you to grant me that we have also done much good, do much good.
It is the eve of Easter, the Saturday between our ceremony mourning the crucifixion of Christ and our celebration of his resurrection Sunday morning. By tradition, Christ is in Hell. It is a day when I feel like fasting and writing. It is one of those moments when there is much to moan about. I am in the gap between scary and things working out. Tomorrow I’ll celebrate with my brethren at St. Giles the completion of the story. We will say, “Christ is Risen!” In the coming weeks I’ll traverse this gap and things will work out.
Today is a cold, grey day of “not yet.” My Jesus is buried in the tomb. We have the blood of those we sinned against on our hands. In two thousand years we have much to answer for. It is not yet Easter. Still God is dead for another day.
So, this I know. Of all that was tried, all that has been done, this crazy thing, this absurd king, did more to change the world for good than anything in history. I am called to serve a bastard carpenter’s boy from Nazareth, who died on a cross with criminals. This I know, serving Him has saved my life.