For some reason, the image from today’s Gospel reading—Mary wiping Jesus’ feet with the nard using her abundant hair—kept evoking the memory of a night when I was on duty as a volunteer night chaplain at a hospital in Waterloo, Iowa, about a year or so before I started seminary. Latent anger and helplessness still lingers whenever I recall that night, and I know it colors how I feel about my gay friends and it colors how I feel about violence. That particular night I’d done my usual rounds and returned to the chaplains’ room. At some point, my pager went off—a call to the ED for a trauma patient. Arriving in the suite reserved for trauma victims (this was my second time there, but my baptism by fire is a story for another time), I discovered that the victim was a young black man, nineteen years old, comatose, his head bloody because he’d been beaten with a baseball bat. This young man was beaten by members of his own community because he was gay.
His brain was swollen and pressure had built up (I forget the exact medical terminology, but that’s the gist of it); his mother and siblings were in the suite, awaiting the medical transport helicopter that would take him to Iowa City. The university hospital was much better suited to perform the pressure-relieving surgery; the doctors told us that they were confident the surgery would be successful. The helicopter arrived, and as we stood around the young man on the gurney before the medics came in to get him, his mother asked me to pray. She was trying to be strong and looked for hope, for assurance. What could I pray when I felt a very strong sense—I knew, don’t ask me how, but I knew—that the young man would not survive the violence done to him? How to pray out of an angry place—because besides the reality of this young man and his family, the what-ifs of my son, just a few years older, came into being; the what-ifs of my gay friends came into being; the realities of those who suffered violence because of who they were and who they loved angered and frightened me.
Was Mary at all angry as Jesus spoke to his disciples of what must befall him? John doesn’t say that she was weeping (I tend to cry when mad) while she anoints Jesus’ feet with the nard. Did she carry some residual grief because of Lazarus? He was alive again, but certainly not out of danger.
I know my experience in the ED is being brought forward by the questions I’m asking of the text; surely, if I’m angry about the beating of this young man, who until that moment was unknown to me, how can Mary not be at least a little so on behalf of her beloved “Rabbouni?” Perhaps anointing his feet with fragrant oil, using her hair, is Mary’s spontaneous prayer for a man she knew was going to suffer violence at the hands of others, even though it was of his own volition. Maybe Jesus needed hope; hope given profusely in Mary’s actions as she was present in those moments of care.
In the everlasting seconds that quickly passed as I stood there, the question I asked of God—how to pray out of a place of anger—was answered by the grace of the Holy Spirit, grace that transformed my abundance of anger into an abundance of love, enabling me to be a calm presence for the young man’s family as we prayed for his safe arrival to the hospital, we prayed for the doctors and nurses who would care for him, and we prayed for God to give strength and solace to his family at that time.
At his funeral a little over a week later, his mother and I embraced and a sense of understanding and love passed between us, as we both shed tears, an anointment of sorts.
If this were the fifth Sunday in Lent, I might have ended my sermon there, at the anointing. However, we are given more verses of John’s Gospel on this Monday in Holy Week, on every Monday in Holy Week, than we hear at the end of Lent. These ominous verses about the Pharisees’ intentions for Lazarus give us an intimation that we must endure more, with Mary, with Judas even, and of course with Jesus, as we are drawn forward to Maundy Thursday’s bittersweet agape meal and to the heart-wrenching betrayals and violence of Good Friday.
As we enter into the aletheia—the not-forgetting, the remembering—of Holy Week, are you frightened? Are you angry? Do you feel helpless as these events unroll, immediate and real? Do what-ifs spring to mind? What if Judas had waited three more days? What if it were my child on the cross? What if? We can’t change the events of Holy Week, though, no matter how many what-ifs.
So, then, how do you pray for and with Jesus, with Christ, in his suffering and death this week? How do you pray this week, and every week, for a world full of turmoil—terrorism unfolding around us, politicians you may not agree with; how do you pray for those in prison; for those in the injustice system, for those who are homeless,
for . . .? If we feel sad, helpless, or angry over what befalls Jesus—someone we love—this week, surely we feel the same about what’s happening in the world? How do we pray, as a church, and as individuals?
The good news is that while we know that Jesus dies on the cross, we also know that the tomb is empty on Easter morning. Perhaps we can pray from that place of hope, assurance, and love. Amen.