Last Tuesday, March 8th, was the International Women’s Day. It was originally called International Working Women’s Day with focus on a general celebration of respect, appreciation and love towards women for economic, political and social achievements. Some places it is simply another day besides Valentine's and Mother’s day to celebrate and express love for women; however, in many regions of the world, the human rights theme designated by United Nations runs strong as an awareness of the ongoing struggles of women worldwide. Some of you might have seen the disturbing UNICEF video that looks like a storybook wedding. Except for one thing--the bride is only 10 years old and would rather (and should rather) be out playing than dressed up for marriage. Fifteen million girls will be married this year before they turn 18. And we truly should celebrate and salute one of the real young female heroes of our time that is not known for her fashion, music, shoes or movies, but is known for her great courage to stand up for girls and women’s right to education: Nobel Peace Prize Winner Malala Yousafzai.
As we have just celebrated The International Women’s Day, today here in church we listen to the wonderful Gospel of John chapter 10 about the devout and loving woman Mary, who anointed Jesus' feet and wiped them with her hair. The anointing woman has been a very popular image in Christian art and imagination through time, and if you look at the cover of the bulletin this morning you will find a beautiful paining by Ruth Councell called The Gift.
In our history of the church as the Roman Catholic Church, the image and perception of Mary who wept, anointed, and wiped the feet of Jesus, has, especially since Pope Gregory in the 6th century, been painted or rather tainted by tying together several different New Testament stories of women as all referring to Mary of Magdala. Pope Gregory identified that Mary as a reformed prostitute. Thus through history of art, the anointing woman is usually named Mary Magdala; and she is often shown with wild red hair, a revealing of the shoulder dress and her jar of anointment at her hip. And thus through history there seem to be a very stereotypical image of women as being either sinless and pure like Mother Mary or sinful and provocative like Mary Magdala. Truly either a Madonna or a Prostitute.
First of all, Mary Magdala, despite her reputation and history, painted and tainted through the history of church, most importantly, was one of the strongest followers of Jesus and one of the first witnesses to the resurrection. And secondly the Mary we meet today in the Gospel is Mary of Bethany, sister to Martha and Lazarus.
The Gospel tells us today about an act of extravagant love: so extravagant that some of the disciples thought it was a waste. But this beautiful story tells us that love and the acts of love can never be too extravagant--acts of love can never be a waste. Mary was simply anointing her beloved master and teacher because she wanted to express her deep love and respect--and to express her faith in him even as he was facing death and darkness.
Her acts of love and extravagance was her expression of her love… it was an abundance of love poured out through tears and affection, to the man who was an abundance of love in her life.
We also meet the sisters Mary and Martha in the great storytelling Gospel of Luke, when we meet the hardworking cleaning practical sister Martha and the listening devout spiritual sister Mary.
The Gospel tells us that Jesus and his disciples were on their way and came to the village of Bethany where Martha and Mary lived with their brother Lazarus. Mary sat at the Lord’s feet, listening to what he said, but Martha was busy with all the things that had to be done. And she finally came to Jesus and said: “Lord, my sister has left me to do all the work! Don’t you care… tell her to help me?“ And then Jesus gives the worrisome, practical, busy Martha this wonderful answer that we sometimes as busy hardworking cleaning females need to hear: “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”
For centuries people in the church have been puzzled by this story, knowing that someone has to do the work. We cannot all just sit down and listen… someone has to get up and do the work! However, the point of the story is to make Jesus and our faith the first priority. Martha has been compared to the apostle Peter: practical, impulsive and short tempered to the point of rebuking the Lord. Mary is more like the Apostle John: gentle, reflective, loving and calm.
Some of us tend to be more like Martha and Peter in our Christian life and being, while others resemble Mary and John. Sometimes we tend to let our practical busy lives of service get in the way of our spiritual, contemplative praying time. I do think that the images and the story about Martha and Mary, Peter and Joh, tells us about how we prioritize our religious life, that we tend to worry, that we tend to compare our work and service with others, that we sometimes forget to cherish and make time for devotions, prayers, reading and listening.
It is the same practical worry of waste and extravagance that is reflected in today’s Gospel about Mary. In the Gospel today she is not seated at the feet of Jesus, listening, but she is pouring out and showering her master Jesus in her love and affection.
A beautiful saying states: “You can give without loving, but you cannot love without giving.”
Martha was once again in the kitchen, working, preparing the meal. Mary was once again in the living room, worshipping at the feet of Jesus. Their brother Lazarus was with all the other men at the table, witnessing the wondrous story about his death and if he was a tunnel or a bright light before the voice of Jesus called him out of the darkness and silence.
If you put all three together, you actually have a very balanced perfect Christian. Martha’s work is important and so is Mary’s worship. And so is Lazarus witnessing.
We need all three ingredients in our Christian lives…. Just as the wonderful Baptism embodied today: listen to the Gospel, confess and witness and then serving and worshipping with our voices as we sing!
We need both work and worship and witness. If we just sit, we soak and eventually sour. We need to get up and burn our spiritual energy when we serve, sing and work.
“You can give without loving, but you cannot love without giving.”
Today’s Gospel is an encouragement and call to all of us Mary’s, Martha’s and Lazarus’, all of us men and women, young and old, that despite our gender and age – our faith should urge us to give and serve: and we have to try to have room and time for listening, worshipping, working, witnessing and serving. An act of love should always be extravagant. As an expression of an abundance of love. When you love you cannot help but to give the best you have: your heart, your soul and your spirit.
“You can give without loving, but you cannot love without giving.”