Stain Glass

“In Memory of Her”: Lent and Extravagance for Nothing

By J.P. O’Connor, PhD

[1]

Image from 16th manuscript - Public DomainFor most in the Christian tradition, Lent is a season of cutting back. Fasting was the preferred discipline in antiquity with Jesus himself offering parameters for how one ought to do so properly (Matt. 6:16–18; see also Exod. 34:28; Deut. 9:18). For many Catholics, meat is trimmed from one’s diet. More recent trends have included breaks from social media to reducing one’s carbon and electricity consumption. Beginning on Ash Wednesday, Christians across denominations will set aside forty days for self-imposed restraint leading up to the resurrection of Christ, a practice tracing back to at least the fourth century.

It would be a mistake, however, if the liturgy of Lent was understood as primarily the suppression of one’s physical needs. While penitential practices were and are popular among Christians, Lent also centers on almsgiving and generosity. In the words of John Chrysostom,

“Let us store up for ourselves abundant grounds for confidence through the performance of good deeds by giving evidence not only of the severity of our fasting in keeping with these days of Lent but also of the generosity of our almsgiving and our ardent prayers.”[2]

Lent, Chrysostom reminds us, is about generosity despite our own wants or needs. We give out of our own frail desperation and not from excess or abundance.

I am reminded of the story in the Gospel of Mark of an unnamed woman who anoints Jesus at Bethany (14:3–9). The scene opens at Simon’s house with Jesus reclining at a table, maybe enjoying a meal, or engrossed in conversation with those present. Without warning, a woman abruptly enters the room carrying with her a jar of nard, which she immediately breaks and pours on Jesus’ head. At such a spectacle, I imagine the room falls silent. “What’s going on? Who is she?” the guests might whisper to each other. The Gospel writer is emphatic about the cost of the ointment: it is very expensive (v. 3). Incredulous, some present scold the woman pointing to the extravagant value of this perfumed oil and the gall of her grand display. “Why was the ointment wasted in this way?” they ask in astonishment.

Often overlooked, the story of the unnamed woman at Bethany is tightly sandwiched between another story. The opening verses of Mark 14 detail a secret plot to kill Jesus (vv. 1–2). But before the reader learns of where or how this will happen, our attention is jerked away to the unnamed woman (vv. 3–9). Still on the edge of our seats, the plot picks up again in v. 10: Jesus would be betrayed by one of his own, Judas Iscariot. While Mark leaves the reader clues leading up to this shocking reveal (3:19), the reader still wonders: How could Judas do such a thing? Driven by greed, Judas turns on his teacher at the promise of money (v. 11).

These intertwining tales are told in such a way to confront our own motives. The unnamed woman and Judas each point toward Jesus’ death. The woman’s act of generosity prepares Jesus’s body for burial (v. 8); Judas and his conspirators plot for the same outcome (vv. 2, 11). Both stories invite the judgment of onlookers. The chief priests and scribe fear the reaction of the people, while the woman faces ridicule from those within the house. Finally, both stories center on money. The woman “wastes” nearly a year’s wages; Judas is enticed by financial gain. Each character’s motives invert the other’s. Judas acts out of greed and the woman out of extravagance.

As we prepare for Lent, let us turn to the example of this woman, named Mary in other Gospel traditions (Matt 26:6–13; John 12:1–8). She gives up everything with the promise of nothing in return, while Judas gives up nothing in exchange for a fatter bank account. The absurdity of giving everything when we have nothing to gain or little to give can also be an act of divestment. Like the ashes smeared across our heads, we pronounce death upon the enticing promises of recognition, power, and wealth. This radical act of giving, especially when our own needs constantly dangle in front of our noses, denies money its power.

In this woman’s memory may we give extravagantly for nothing at all in return.

 

[1] Image from 16th manuscript; public domain https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Mary_Magdalen_anointing_Christ%E2%80%99s_feet_(f._15v)_Cropped.jpg

[2] Chrysostom, Homilies on Genesis 30.14 (Homilies on Genesis 18–45, trans. Robert C. Hill [Washington, D.C.: Catholic University Press, 1986]).

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