Sunday, March 21, 2010

Fixed Hearts Amid Swift & Varied Changes

(Photo: David Reece)

Almighty God, you alone can bring into order
the unruly wills and affections of sinners:
Grant your people grace to love what you command
and desire what you promise;
that, among the swift and varied changes of the world,
our hearts may surely there be fixed where true joys are to be found;
through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with
you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
(Collect for the 5th Sunday of Lent)

My son, Andrew, was down the last two weeks with another episode in his ongoing illness. Thanks to God, he managed to stay out of the hospital this time, and is finally responding to the medications prescribed by his doctor. When I spoke to him on Wednesday his speech was still bad enough that I could barely understand him; he called me yesterday and spoke almost normally. "Swift and varied changes..." I think of Sandra Bullock. After lifelong struggles, she found peace and stability in a marriage finally, five years ago. Her acting continued to get better and recently she achieved, somewhat unexpectedly, what Hollywood considers the pinnacle: a Golden Globe Award and an Oscar. Not just an Oscar, but one in competition with the likes of Meryl Streep and Helen Mirren! Just after that, almost literally overnight, after repeatedly expressing her love and trust in her husband and her gratitude for his help, she's devastated with news of his betrayal of her through an extramarital affair. Hopes and dreams crushed. Betrayal by the one closest to her. "Swift and varied changes..."

Neither of these examples is particularly unique, except in the uniqueness of the persons undergoing them. You and I have all had a taste of the "swift and varied changes" of life. Something or someone is there, then suddenly is not. And so it should be somewhat comforting for you and me to pray the words above: "Grant [us] grace...that, among the swift and varied changes of the world, our hearts may surely there be fixed where true joys are to be found..."

The Gospel for today's liturgy (John 12:1-8) relates to all this. Actually, the other two readings (Isaiah 43:16-21 and Philippians 3:4b-14) do the same. John tells us about a dinner gathering in Jesus' honor at the Bethany home of close friends: two sisters and their brother, Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. From the context, it's also fair to assume that the Twelve who followed Jesus in his preaching ministry were also there. A motley crew, indeed, and one wonders what each of them was thinking as the evening progressed. John notes, though we could have guessed it from an earlier story, that Martha was the cook, the maƮtre-d', and the waitress. Lazarus would surely have commanded lots of attention, since he only recently emerged, at Jesus' command, from the darkness of his tomb, burial bindings and all! The tempo of events picks up when Mary suddenly brings forth a one-pound container of pure spikenard or nard.
Spikenard (nardostachys grandiflora), also called nard, nardin, or muskroot is a flowering plant of the Valerian family. It grows to about 1 millimeter in height and has pink, bell-shaped flowers. Spikenard rhizomes (underground stems) can be crushed and distilled into an intensely aromatic amber-colored essential oil, very thick in consistency. Nard oil was used as a perfume, an incense, a sedative, and as an herbal medicine.

The nard which Mary used was very costly and pure-grade: John says that "the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume..." Mary pours it on Jesus' feet, spreading it around, covering them, then proceeds to wipe his feet with her hair, presumably of some length. What appears to be an unusually lavish, sensuous, obviously loving extravagance makes absolute sense, given Jesus' words to Judas, "...She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial...", and given the events which transpired between Lazarus' raising and the evening of this meal. John tells us in the previous chapter that, after Jesus raised Lazarus, many eyewitnesses began to believe Jesus, while some others ran to the Pharisees with a report of what Jesus had done. The Pharisees were so exercised by it all that they and the chief priests called a special meeting of the council to deal with this. "What are we to do? This man is performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation..." Caiaphas, one the high priests, verbalized a strategy: " is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed..." From then on "they planned to put him to death".

Jesus and his band of followers certainly realized what was going on because, as John notes, " longer walked about openly among the Jews, but went from there to a town called Ephraim...and he remained there with the disciples." As Passover approached people were, as it were, placing bets on whether Jesus would show up for the great Feast. Ominously, according to John, "...the chief priests and the Pharisees had given orders that anyone who knew where Jesus was should let them know, so that they might arrest him." So, though Jesus, his disciples, and his host friends enjoyed each other's company over a meal, one can imagine the underlying tension which must have gripped them all. Before, Jesus and the religious leaders had had differences of opinion, disagreements, all of which had, over time, escalated. This was now serious business. And everyone knew it.

Mary, sensitive as she was and attached as she was to the one constant figure in her life, aside from her sister and brother, probably anticipated that things might get pretty rough. Once the worst happened to Jesus, would she even get the chance to pay her last respects by anointing the body? So, in her generous and emotional gesture, she does it beforehand. Judas, the group's treasurer, was apparently dealing with his own demons at the time. He most likely wouldn't have had his position among the Twelve had there not been some sort of close relationship with The Master. But, for whatever reason, that wasn't enough for Judas. Perhaps he was torn between loyalty to this humble, seemingly un-streetwise itinerant preacher, and his own sense of justice, his sense of urgency for something or someone to break the oppressive Roman stranglehold on his society overseen by Pilate and supported by the corrupted religious establishment. John describes him here as "the one who was about to betray him..." Might that not imply that Judas hadn't yet made up his mind definitively? that he was inwardly struggling? Whatever it was, Judas who'd had his hand in the till from time to time, according to John, criticizes Mary for her extravagance and puts forth a hypocritical statement in behalf of the poor. Jesus doesn't let his rudeness pass: "Leave her alone...You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me." Jesus, like us all, was subject to the "swift and varied changes of the world". Yet his heart and soul were "surely there...fixed where true joys are to be found": in his Father and in the Father's will.

I find myself wondering what each of the dinner guests was thinking, given this whole context. I imagine each of them posing to themselves the question, "Who is this man to me, really?" Now that not only Jesus but each of them was threatened, surely with increased opposition because of their association, but also perhaps even with death like him, where could they turn for security? Paul, in the Philippians reading, talks about all with which he'd been blessed in his life. He was a "Hebrew born of Hebrews", a true-blue Jew, if ever there was one! His credentials were impeccable, and he was truly serious about his commitment to his Jewish faith. But all that had gotten messed up on a trip to Damascus, where he was literally knocked off his high-horse. Things changed: swiftly and in more ways than he could count. And now, looking back, he says he regards as "rubbish", which, if you didn't know it, is equivalent to something like "manure", itself a euphemism for our contemporary slang term, "B.S.". He sees everything as "loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord..." Everything else swiftly changes, evaporates, doesn't stand the test of time. "I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death...", so that somehow he "may attain the resurrection from the dead."

It seems that this is what all the "stuff" we're about during Lent is trying to convey to us. Jesus the Christ, who died, rose for us, and will come again, is the only fixed point of our security and safety and true joy. Everything else is part of the "swift and varied changes of the world".

Or as Julian of Norwich puts it:

God of your goodness, give me Yourself, for you are enough to me;
and I can ask for nothing that is less which can be full honor to You;
and if I ask for anything that is less, ever shall I be in want:
for only in You have I all.

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