The Rev. Brian C. Taylor
Years ago in San Francisco, I remember a controversy over the building of the new Roman Catholic cathedral of St. Mary of the Assumption. It was controversial for two reasons: first, because it was, in the heyday of Vatican II, quite modern. It was filled with bold new art, including a huge abstract crystal crucifix over the altar. The roof consisted of sweeping shapes of white concrete arching upwards, giving it the distinct appearance of a gigantic washing machine agitator. We called it St. Mary Maytag.
But the second reason it was controversial had to do with the time we were in, 1967, and the cost of the building. It was the Summer of Love. I was among the thousands of anti-establishment counter-culture types who swarmed the Bay Area. We couldn’t understand why the church, supposedly dedicated to the life and example of Jesus of Nazareth, would spend millions on this extravagant edifice when there were so many living in poverty, right there in the neighborhood immediately surrounding the cathedral grounds. It seemed an outrage, and there were many demonstrations.
The response from the church was something along the lines of “You always have the poor with you, but you will not always have this opportunity to glorify God.” That didn’t sit well with many of us.
Anyone with a social conscience who travels in Latin America is confronted with the same thing: gilded, opulent churches, built with the sweat and blood of the poor who slaved in the gold mines, who never got anything but fear-mongering from the imperious clerics living right in their midst.
And yet. I learned, as I saw dirt-poor beggars on their knees in these churches, that they had this place of magnificent, transcendent beauty in their life. They could come anytime, stay all day if they wanted to, and feel as if they were in heaven. And I have learned to appreciate the grandeur of St. Mary Maytag.
This is the tension in our gospel today. After all, Judas had a point, even if he was a thief and a betrayer. If Jesus really cared about the poor, why would he allow Mary to buy the most expensive perfume, and then pour it all over Jesus feet, spilling on to the floor? What a waste! Think of how much food that would have purchased at the market for those who had nothing to eat!
Jesus replied, “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” There is a time for self-sacrifice in the service of others; and there is a time for extravagance in the service of God. Let’s look at the context of this story.
Do you remember the other story of Mary and her sister Martha that took place in this same home in Bethany? On an earlier date, Martha had been preparing food for Jesus and his friends. But Mary, that worthless dreamer, just sat there listening to and worshiping Jesus. When Martha complained, Jesus told her that Mary had chosen the better way, the way of prayer and adoration.
Here we are again, back in Bethany. A few days earlier, Jesus had just raised Mary and Martha’s brother Lazarus from the dead. Imagine this: Jesus had raised their brother from the dead! And here he was, in their home. Lazarus sat around, no doubt, still stunned, gazing out the window like someone, well, back from the dead. Martha did what she always did, slaving away in the kitchen.
But Mary, the woman of prayer and adoration, couldn’t help herself. She was overwhelmed with devotion for this man who had shown that he had the power of God in him, power even over death. So she brought out and unwrapped the treasured perfume that they were saving for Jesus’ burial. Kneeling down before her Lord, she massaged his feet with the precious oil, then rubbing it in with her long, dark hair. You probably could have heard a pin drop in the room. Mary’s act was an extravagant, sensual, outrageous demonstration of love for Jesus. It was an act of worship.
There are times when a beautiful, expensive house of worship must be built, just to glorify God. 13 years ago, we could have built this building as a utilitarian space, tripling as a food pantry, education hall, and place of worship. It certainly would have been more socially-responsible, environmentally-friendly, and cost-effective. But we spent a million dollars instead on adobe, flagstone, stained glass, and a generous, high ceiling. All for God. It sits empty many hours of the week.
I know a musician, who, like most musicians, doesn’t make much money. His one extravagance in life is every year, to buy 4 tickets to each production of the Santa Fe Opera. He takes friends or family out to a nice dinner, and they sit under the stars and hear the glorious strains of Puccini and Mozart. Why does he splurge like this when he could be saving the money or giving it to charity? Because it feeds his soul; because it feeds his friends’ and family’s souls.
This is what Mary’s oil of anointing is about. It is what the Cathedral of St. Mary the Assumption is about: feeding the soul. And it raises the question for us – do you ever throw caution to the wind and do something outrageous for God, something that will feed your soul? What might that be?
Perhaps a spontaneous road trip to the Grand Canyon. A tattoo that reminds you of something you never want to forget. A pledge to the church that you’re not sure you can afford. A painting that, every time you really look at it, makes you quiet, reverent, wondrous. Playing hooky from work, right when your desk is piled high with responsibility, so that you can go to a ball game and sip a beer with a friend. A $100 bill, handed to a homeless teenager at the traffic light, with a note attached that says “Call your mother.”
Sometimes I think that we modern Americans are losing our soul. Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the Latin American novelist, was asked one time what he admired about America. He thought for a long while, then said “They’re good at getting things done.” We’re efficient, effective, practical, and productive. Nose to the grindstone, multi-tasking, all business.
And then, when we’re sick of it, we fritter away our time and money on superficial entertainment and cheap junk. The material world and all it offers is no longer something to be savored, a source of beauty that will feed our souls. It is a tawdry distraction, greedily consumed, giving us temporary relief from the treadmill of a utilitarian, soulless existence. We’re forgetting how to live graciously.
By comparison, when you go to Mexico or India, even the poor wear beautifully-colored fabric. They taste a luscious, locally-grown mango. They pause for coffee and talk to their neighbor, taking in the fresh morning air. On their way home from work, they stop into the church or the temple and offer incense to the One who fills their family with love. They feed their souls, even when they don’t have enough to feed their bellies.
But I think that the lesson in this gospel is not just about material extravagance. It is about our spiritual life, too. We tend to be overly practical about that, too. We pray about problems we’re having, problems others are having, asking for this and for that. We forget sometimes just to leave ourselves behind and praise God, to pray the prayer of adoration, to anoint God’s feet with the precious oil of joy.
This is possible at any time, even when things are going badly – it doesn’t matter what our circumstances are. Mary knew this, for even as Jesus’ crucifixion loomed on the near horizon, even as she took out the perfume that she had purchased for his inevitable death, she worshiped him. In this dark time she boldly seized the moment and filled it with soul.
Jesus said “I came that you might have life, and have it abundantly.” Life is always abundant. Even when it is hard, it can be full of soul.