Lent 5  Text: Mark 14: 1-9

This last week with my Dad in hospital, I’m realizing there is so much I’m learning, and so much to learn about companioning someone who is nearing the end of life.

As family members arrive from out of town, we’ve been endeavouring to come alongside Dad to offer reassurance. With him waking in the night not knowing where he is, and his confusion in the clear light of day about what is happening, one of us has been there with him as the one recognizable factor in his strange new world. We’ve cycled through the explanation countless times -- this is where you are … this is how you got here … this is what we’re waiting for.  But with Dad’s memory loss, the effect of the explanation is fleeting at best. Beyond our words, I realize it is our physical presence that matters, that eases his distress. And no doubt the compassionate quality of that presence …our showing up with loving kindness.

It’s hard to know what’s next for Dad … what the next moves are now that he is back to his suite with 24 hour care. What of his strength will he regain? … what of his clarity of mind?-- these things that have enabled him to live where he is … and where he is so grateful to be.

Who are we for each other as the end of life draws ever nearer?  How are we for each other? And how are we in ourselves which has such a bearing on how we are for each other?
And what is it that we are supporting as we near the end? This past week our focus has been on making sure Dad doesn’t fall again … and now, realizing if that continues to be the highest consideration above all else, what does that mean? What gets neglected if physical safety becomes everything? What about matters of the heart?
It’s quite a dance, especially when I come to appreciate how powerful a factor is my own bag of emotions and wishes --quite apart from Dad’s-- that are at work in making our way. In other words, while we might have imagined we were looking toward the end of Dad’s life, there’s this dawning that of course this comes with an ending as well for us who love him. So how might we tend these endings in a way that make way for a communion of our hearts?

As you can hear, I’m asking a lot of questions!

Well then, along comes this story from Mark’s Gospel that was already lined up for this Sunday, well before the events of this past week … this story of facing into the end of life, as Jesus moves ever closer to his death. What is there in this encounter that has something to offer us … and not just me and my own family, but any one of us as we dare to contemplate the end of our own lives and the lives of our loved ones.

The story opens with Jesus in the home of Simon the leper, we’re told, at the table for a meal. This is Jesus moving toward the end in the characteristic fashion of his life …living out this practice of friendship, sitting with, eating with whoever would have him.  The meal is under way when a woman enters the room. We’re not given to know her name or her connection with Simon or Jesus … but what follows indicates she has great love for Jesus -- great love, and a deep knowing. It appears as though she’s there without explicit invitation. She just seems to arrive -- unconcerned it seems about the usual protocols … unconcerned perhaps, or somehow just not letting her fears or those expectations get in the way. It’s love’s way sometimes to take over … to take us over those hesitations, to move us past whatever the obstacles that would keep us from each other. There’s something here about trusting love’s bold way.

In this case she comes with a alabaster jar of oil…luxurious fragrant oil. This is her “how do I love thee?” She opens the flask and pours it out, every last drop … pours it over his dear head. In a similar rendering of the story in John’s Gospel, she pours it over his feet and wipes them with her hair. There is no holding back. She claims the gift of this moment for what it is … the opportunity to express her tender loving care while there is yet time.

How often it happens that it’s not until a person has died that our appreciation comes tumbling out… at the celebration of their life. What might we be keeping bottled up when now is the time to let it flow? And if words get in the way, or are not enduring, how else might we convey what our hearts hold? Have we any notion of the treasure of our love?

To be sure, what this woman does for Jesus serves an essential need in her to communicate her love. And then there is what happens for Jesus through his receptivity that is equally powerful, for him and undoubtedly for her. Jesus who we are so used to seeing in giving mode … restoring health and strength and dignity, making room and making a way, granting freedom, offering courage, giving life. Now here he is, all about receiving … perceiving the healing gift she is offering and letting it bless him, strengthen him, dignify him. Where the coming days loom large and can’t help but be dreaded, he allows this woman to bring him into this moment now … to savour this moment now … knowing that the day of his death is coming, but right now he is alive and able to receive whatever kindness, whatever tenderness, whatever gratefulness for what he has meant to her through his life. He may even be receiving through her gift even more than she ever hoped to convey. It is the way of the Spirit to multiply the gift, is it not!

So that when others at the table take offence and react to what they see as waste, Jesus hears nothing of it. What has happened for him through what she has done is beyond measure. They take exception to the cost … if that ointment was sold, so much could have been done for the poor, they say. And so it could. But Jesus, friend of the poor, refuses to let this be framed in terms of him vs the poor. He knows well the systems that keep people poor, and how every day if people so wish, there is opportunity to care for poor people. The call to care for the poor never ceases. These folks at the table could, if they wished, go do that right now, and in all their days to come.
But what this woman knows and is unafraid to acknowledge that they can’t or won’t see is the horror that Jesus is about endure in his frail flesh. Nobody else is addressing that, at least not in a way that draws them near to care for his aching heart. But she, knowing his urgent need of companionship, comfort and solace; knowing that the time is short to express all the gratitude and affection she carries in her heart, she acts. Far from shunning her gift, he receives it for all it’s worth and blesses her, such that to this day, even though we may not know her name, we remember her.

So imagine this as one person suggests it might have happened …
Having already been anointed with love for his burial, Jesus lives the days ahead more truly … more in touch, not less; more himself, not less. Something about his felt experience of her unreserved outpouring of love made him ready to wash feet, pour out his body, and to face his death with love. And so he rises from that table in the home of Simon the leper, risen. [1]

Maybe in that lies something of the answer to that question, what is it we are supporting as we care for each other as the end of life draws near in its time?
Maybe it is this … that whatever the goodness this life has been about, that we might be about supporting the pouring out of that goodness, right to the last drop.

[1] Steve Garnaas Holmes, “Mary Anoints Jesus,” Unfolding Light , April 1, 2019