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  • Rev. Diane Curtis

A Special Occasion

John 12:1-8

New Revised Standard Version

12 Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 2 There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. 3 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. 4 But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, 5 “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” 6 (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) 7 Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. 8 You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”

On my Dad’s 70th birthday we threw him a party. Not just any party, a surprise party. Surprises were not his thing. He liked to know when he needed to be at something - one of our games, plays, birthdays, or other events we were part of. Dad planned around his regular bridge club and tournaments. He was a creature of habit to the nth degree.

It wasn’t unusual to celebrate Dad’s birthday every year. Family would gather at his favorite pizza place, sit around a large table, talk, laugh, and share stories. So, it was a given that the surprise party would be at the pizza place, the least likely place for an unexpected celebration. My siblings handled the logistics and invitations. My sisters-in-law took care of the decorations (one of them even had buttons made with Dad’s picture on them for everyone to wear!).

On the day, we gathered – kids and grandkids (many of us drove or flew in from out-of-town). My parent’s friends came, too. Dad didn’t suspect a thing, as far as we knew (the last time we surprised him was 20 years before), until he went into the pizza place and was taken to a different part of the restaurant than usual. He was overwhelmed (in a good way) when he walked in. I think the biggest surprise for him was who was there, especially those of us who had come a distance.

As is normally the case when we gathered, we sat around tables talking, laughing, and sharing stories. And eating pizza! A special occasion to remember.

Special occasions are often events that we look forward to and then later look back on. Milestone birthdays or anniversaries. The senior prom, graduations, weddings, and family reunions. These are the times remembered in pictures, memorabilia, and memories. They are imprinted in our brains and hearts.

It was just such a special occasion that evening in the home of Lazarus and his sisters, Mary and Martha. Jesus and his friends were in town. What made the occasion particularly poignant was Lazarus’ presence. Everyone thought he had died. Jesus had miraculously raised him from the dead. There he was reclining at the table, laughing with the others, sharing stories, and enjoying good food.

For the disciples, this was another meal together with Jesus. Such occasions were few and far between since these men were usually on the road catching a quick nap and eating on the fly. They enjoyed these breaks with their teacher. Times when they could relax and be served rather than expending their energy serving others.

Jesus knew that this meal was different than others they had shared. This stopover in Bethany would be the last time he would spend with his friends before he and the disciples went to Jerusalem for the last time. Little did they know the flurry of activity that awaited them, ending with the agony and pain of Jesus’ death.

As we drop in on the scene, it is Mary’s action of anointing Jesus’ feet and wiping them with her hair that is the focus. She approached the table with the jar of perfume in her hand and knelt down next to Jesus. Talking ceased. Women didn’t enter into the men’s space during a meal. When she let her hair down, they were aghast.

Mary’s act was an intimate interaction with Jesus. Yet it was more than that. Jesus understood. Mary sensed that this occasion was special. Mary, who had sat at Jesus’ feet listening attentively and thoughtfully at his words, intuitively knew that she needed to anoint him, anoint his feet.

Soon, everyone recognized that something different was afoot. The scent of the perfume wafted through the house. They smelled it, saw Mary wiping Jesus’ feet with her hair, and wondered. The scent was familiar even though they couldn’t place it.

Jesus clued them in. Mary was preparing him for later, for his burial. The perfume was the scent of death. The scent that covered up the stench of a decomposing body. The fragrance told their senses that death was in the air.

Dr Emerson Powery tells us that Lazarus’ presence was also a reminder of death’s presence. He was supposed to be in the tomb. Yet he sat with them at the table. Death was in the air, but so was resurrection. Lazarus was the reminder of Jesus’ power over death, that death would not have the last word.

Lent is a time to remember that death is always in the air. To die is part of being human. Not a part we like to think about, though. Within the last two years, we have heard and seen more about death than we want. Now, the images on our television screens show us death at its worst.

Death reminds us of loved ones we have lost. Of the times shared, stories told, the regret of words unspoken, the grief that doesn’t seem to fully disappear. Death feels so final.

John 12 reminds us that death won’t have the final word. Lazarus reminds us of that promise. Even though his human body will die again he will live in God’s presence. The gathering at his house and the fragrance of the perfume are reminders as well.

Mary’s anointing of Jesus, that Jesus describes as preparation for his burial, is the ultimate reminder of the promise. Death won’t have the final word. Life doesn’t end with death.

Lent reminds us that Jesus will triumph over death. We see the cross up ahead, the symbol of death. Beyond that, we see the empty tomb, the sign that death doesn’t have the final word.

That’s the purpose of Lent. To reflect on Jesus’ death and its significance. His ultimate sacrifice brought us life. A life as forgiven people who have a sure hope that life doesn’t end with death. A life that is to be lived in the mold of Jesus, focused not wholly on ourselves but primarily on the struggles of others. The fears and needs of those who live on death’s doorstep wondering if they will have food to eat, clothes to wear, a warm place to sleep, or a safe haven to escape threats of harm. The fear of those who are physically nearing the end of their lives and that of the families sitting at their bedside.

Reflecting on Jesus’ sacrifice makes us more mindful of human frailty and encourages us to act on behalf of others. Mindful that Jesus’ return is coming so we are to live each day as if it could be at any moment.

The Lord’s supper also reminds us of Jesus’ ultimate sacrifice. He gave himself, body, and blood, for each of us that we might have life lived for ourselves and, most importantly, lived for others. At the table, we remember that Jesus is present with us and that he walks with us. And we remember that death doesn’t have the last word.


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