The central focus for Christian liturgy is the ritual Eucharist. Traditionally Eucharist (which means “thanksgiving”) has reenacted the last meal Jesus ate with his followers before the blood sacrifice of his execution at the hands of the Romans, but with the dogmatic interpretation that Jesus died to save sinners from hell in the next life. Twenty-first century progressive Christians are concerned more with living a life of justice-compassion here and now (as Jesus taught) than reconciling with a god that demands blood sacrifice in exchange for a carefree afterlife. What is required is to act with justice-compassion in radical abandonment of self-interest. Suppose that instead of terrorizing ourselves with the Advent of violent judgment, we were to celebrate the Advent of the Christ consciousness; instead of a Eucharist mourning the personal holocaust of Jesus’s death, a Eucharist of Ordination, in which we recommit ourselves to the great work of distributive justice-compassion? We have the power, at any moment, to transform the way we live our lives. We can choose not to participate in the retributive system of imperial war and systemic injustice. We can step into the kind of ongoing parallel universe of God’s justice-compassion at any moment. We can change our consciousness, change the paradigm in which we live, whenever we have the will to do so. Jesus is not coming again. We are; and when the rare opportunity presents itself, we can break the alabaster jar in remembrance of her.
The story of the woman with the alabaster jar is so powerful that it appears in all the gospels. Therefore, the incident may very well have actually happened; the question is when, and under what circumstances. She must have been an important member – even a leader – in Jesus’s entourage, although she is unnamed in Mark, Matthew, and Luke. John assumes she was Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, close friends of Jesus. Mark, Matthew, and John place the story in Jesus’s last days as he journeys toward Jerusalem, death, and resurrection. In Luke’s version she is a penitent prostitute (by legend, Mary Magdalene), and the story is treated as a scandal.
As Jesus and the twelve and the rest of the followers journey from Caesarea Philippi to Jerusalem, Jesus tries on three occasions to convince the twelve that to be first in the kingdom of God means giving personal power away, or using personal power-with and for another as a servant or slave or child, not political or personal power-over others. To follow Jesus’s way means to participate with him in bringing about God’s justice-compassion – the nonviolent alternative to Roman imperial violence. He warns constantly that to do that means to follow him into and through death itself. He will be captured, tortured, and killed because his message attracts the people, and offers a direct threat to the authority of the Roman occupiers. Indeed, the writer of John’s gospel tells us in 12:9 that “. . . the chief priests planned to put Lazarus to death as well, since it was on account of him that many of the [people] were deserting and were believing in Jesus.”
Mark’s Jesus assures his followers that he will be resurrected on the third day. But they don’t believe him. Just as it was unthinkable that God would allow his temple to be destroyed, so it was unthinkable that God would allow his Messiah to be defeated. The disciples ignore the gathering political storm clouds, and imagine themselves sharing the glorious victory. They don’t get the paradigm shift Jesus is insisting on. They can’t see their way out of the prevailing normalcy of imperial, hierarchical rule. Judas makes the ultimate betrayal, literally selling Jesus to the Romans in John’s version of the story, which makes Judas into an ordinary thief or robber, interested in his own selfish agenda, rather than one who is simply unable to give up his identification with the normalcy of Roman rule, and the paradigm of hierarchy and power-over.
In Mark’s version of the story the unnamed woman is the only one who gets Jesus’s message. She alone hears and believes his certainty that his body will need to be prepared for burial. It is the final service that can be done for anyone; it was the job of women to do it; and she will not have another chance to do so. In a demonstration of the kind of servant-leadership that Jesus kept trying to get the disciples to understand, she takes a jar of perfume – which cost at least a year’s wages – and pours it over Jesus’s head. In John’s version, she washes Jesus’s feet with it, and dries them with her hair – a dramatic and startling act of total submission and hospitality, and John’s Jesus acknowledges this. Mark has Jesus say, “Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.” These words are similar to the familiar words of institution of the Lord’s Supper in Luke’s later gospel: “Do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19). But by the time Luke was writing, the early church had aligned itself with the normalcy of Roman rule, and the woman with the alabaster jar was reduced from prophetic leader to a common and insignificant sinner.
If the writer of Mark was aware of Paul’s theology, the story of the woman with the alabaster jar becomes apocalyptic, as she prepares Jesus’s earthly body in advance for the transformed spiritual body, raised as the first fruits of those martyrs who died in the service of God’s justice-compassion. She is already participating with Jesus in the establishment of God’s kingdom on earth, here and now. From the twenty-first century point of view, her action is a declaration of solidarity, and willingness to see Jesus through whatever the Roman occupiers might like to subject him to. A far cry from the response of the perhaps willfully blind twelve, who pay him lip service, then desert him at the first opportunity. At least Mark’s Judas is honest. He can’t believe Jesus’s way can possibly work, so he abandons the company and turns Jesus in to the authorities.
This story is an indictment of twenty-first century “believers” who reduce Jesus’s death and resurrection to payment for individual petty sin. The story is also an indictment of twenty-first century “believers” who ignore the injustice inherent in the imperial air we breathe every day. Just like the twelve, we cannot see the difference between leadership and tyranny; we cannot see the difference between accountability and retribution. Wealth, physical strength, ability to persuade, age, gender, social class, religion, race – all the different expressions of humanity – become hierarchical qualifications that determine access to power and the opportunity to survive.
In Romans 13:8-14 Paul writes: “Owe no one anything, except to love one another . . . love is the fulfilling of the law. . . . .[N]ow is the moment for you to wake from sleep.” Now is indeed the time for changing consciousness, for transforming human society. Beat swords into plowshares, and spears into pruning hooks, as Isaiah says: “[N]ation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”
Celebrant: There is a story in the Gospel of Mark, Chapter 14, about when Jesus was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper. As he sat at table, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment of nard, and she broke open the jar and poured the ointment on his head. Jesus said, “Truly, I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.” And what was it that she did? Knowing she would probably not have the chance to do so if Jesus were executed by the Romans – which was highly likely – she anointed his body in advance for burial. So I invite us – in remembrance of her – to anoint one another as a symbol of our commitment to live in a community of nonviolent justice-compassion, knowing that the struggle requires our lives.
[The people anoint one another with the oil]
Celebrant: In Paul’s first letter to the community in Corinth, he scolds them for falling out of the practice of justice-compassion, and getting side-tracked by the normalcy of injustice. He reminds the people that he received from the Lord what he also handed on to them. Jesus, on the night when he was betrayed by those who were trapped in the very same forces of injustice that affected the Corinthians, and all of us, took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body broken for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” Participation in God’s distributive justice means a radical denial of our own self-interest. As we share this bread, we share ourselves and make no distinction between them and us.
[The bread is shared among the people]
Celebrant: Then Paul says, “In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying ‘This cup is the new covenant written in my blood. Do this as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’” Again, in case we didn’t get it when he broke the bread, Paul’s Jesus says, the new Covenant – the new partnership with one another in God’s kingdom – is written in blood.
[Wine and juice are poured]
Celebrant: Whenever we eat this bread and share this cup, we proclaim our participation in God’s ongoing, continuing work of justice-compassion until it is accomplished.
[Wine and juice are shared among the people]
All Eternal spirit of life, “The gratitude from which the Eucharist derives its very name is not just our gratitude toward the Source of all things; it is also the gratitude of the universe for our presence and for our efforts at contributing, however imperfectly. The Eucharist is also our hearts expanding and responding generously: ‘Yes, we will.’ We will carry on the heart-work called compassion, the work of the cosmos itself.”
Sea Raven, D.Min. (From “Theology from Exile Volume I, the Year of Luke,” and “Volume II, The Year of Matthew: Commentary on the Revised Common Lectionary for an Emerging Christianity” http://www.amazon.com/dp/1491077328)