We still save our best compliments and flowers for the funeral

Here are words from Ronald Roheiser in The Holy Longing:

The church is also the place we go to help anoint each others for our impending deaths. What is meant by that?

The essence of what church is can be understood by highlighting an incident that occurred in Jesus’ life in the weeks just  before his death. Although all four gospels report this event, a sure sign that it is important, we rearely reflect or homilize about it or are too timid in accepting the raw truth of its revelation. The incident being referred to is the anointing of Jesus’ feet in Bethany by a woman named Mary.

To understand what is revealed in this incident it is helpful to highlight the lavishness of the images used to describe it. Thus, if one were to take all four gospels’ accounts of it and run them through a blender is this: One evening Jesus was at dinner. This dinner, it seems, was a rather lavish one. At one poingt, a woman with a bad reputation in the town enters carrying an alabaster jar of spikenard ointment. Both the jar and the ointment are very expensive. Alabaster ws the Waterford crystal of the itme and spikenard was a very expensive perfume. She breaks the jar–a wasteful act, but one signifying how deeply she loves Jesus and how much she wants this giving to be a singular thing. Then she pours the perfume on him and its aroma permeates the room. Finally, she cries and her tears wash Jesus’ feet and she dries his feet with her hair.

It is hard to paint a scene that is as crass in its depiction of raw affection. That rawness was not lost on the original audience. The evangelists say that people in the room began to grow uncomfortable, as well they mi8ght–and as we would in a similar situation. Some began to voice objections to what was happening. A few objected to the fact that Jesus, who was supposed to be a holy man, was letting a woman with a bad reputation touch him. That, however, was not the main objection, nor was it discomfort. What was making those present uncomfortable was something that also make us uneasy–raw gift; lavish, gratuitous affection. Those present voice their discomfort by pointing to waste and excess: “What wastefulness! That jar and ointment could have been sold and the money could have been given to the poor.”

Jesus, however, anwered the objection by completely affirming what the woman had done and telling his uneasy, objecting hosts: “Leave her alone! She has done a good thing. The poor your will always have iwth you, but you won’t always have me. She has anointed me for my impending death.” That is the key line. Jesus told his hosts that this woman had just helped ready him for death. What did he mean by that?

There are levels of meaning here. On of those, however, is brilliantly captured by John Powell in a short book he wrote some years ago. Entitled Unconditional Love, it contains within it the story of a young man, Tommy, one of Powell’s students, who is twenty-four years of age and dying of cancer. At one stage, before his death, Tommy comes to Powell and shares with him that he feels there are worse tragedies in life than dying young. I quote part of the conversation:

“What’s it like to be only 24 and dying?”

“Well, it could be worse.”

“Like what?”

Well, like being 50 and having no values or ideals, like being 50 and
thinking that booze, seducing women, and making money are the real
biggies in life…

“The essential sadness is to go through life without loving. But it would
be almost equally sad to go through life and leave this world without
ever telling those you loved that you had loved them.”

From the mouth of a dying young man we hear a great truth: There are only two potential tragedies in life and dying young is not one of them. What is tragic is to go through life without loving and without expressing love and affection toward those whom we do love. With that truth in hand, let us return to Jesus’ comment that someone had just anointed him for his impending death:

What Jesus is saying, in effect, might be paraphrased this way: “When I come to die, I will be more ready for death because tonight, of all night in my life, I’m experiencing the reason this universe was made, the giving and receiving of love and affection, pure gift. This is a moment to die for!”

There is a great irony here. If this woman had gone to Jesus’ grave with this outpouring of affection and perfume, it would have been accepted, even admired. You were allowed to anoint a dead body, but it was not acceptable to express similar love and affection to a live one. Nothing has changed in two thousand years. We still save our best compliments and flowers for the funeral. Jesus’ challenge here is for us to anoint each others while we are still alive: Shower those you love with affection and flowers while they are alive, not at their funerals.

…We go to church to tell people we love them and, hopefully, to hear them tell us the same thing. In the end, we go to church to help ready each other for death.

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