Matt 26: 1-13
When Jesus had finished saying all these things, he said to his disciples,‘You know that after two days the Passover is coming, and the Son of Man will be handed over to be crucified.’
Then the chief priests and the elders of the people gathered in the palace of the high priest, who was called Caiaphas, and they conspired to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him. But they said, ‘Not during the festival, or there may be a riot among the people.’
Now while Jesus was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper,* a woman came to him with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment, and she poured it on his head as he sat at the table. But when the disciples saw it, they were angry and said, ‘Why this waste? For this ointment could have been sold for a large sum, and the money given to the poor.’ But Jesus, aware of this, said to them, ‘Why do you trouble the woman? She has performed a good service for me. For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me. By pouring this ointment on my body she has prepared me for burial. Truly I tell you, wherever this good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.’
My mother grew up on Foster street, not 6 or 7 houses down from where Erik and I now live. I have the vague child’s memories of playing in the grass out behind this house that to which now, I have no connection, …yet intimate awareness of where the good rocks to hide behind and where the good flowers would grow, should the not-so-new owners ever need that information.
Like a good Irish Catholic family, conversation of death, and how close it was, was part of their conversations growing up, as it was for me, from my mother. My Nana- who died when I was on the eve of two years old– used to tell my mother in her thick Irish brogue, “put yer name on the bottom of whatever you want now, because you’ll all be fighting over it when I’m dead.” As the story was told to me– so many times, you see, because we’re a story telling family– she did put her name under this irish china bottle my mother *knew* that her mother would lift up and dust under often.
Now it’s in our china cabinet. No dusting required.
When she was gone, we’d go over there to visit Grandpa, after church every Sunday for brunch. I was young. A thick irish fry, he’d pull together with my uncle Kevin and my dad– eggs and irish sausage, black pudding, and toast with sugar on top, my sisters and I still dressed in our Sunday outfits and kicking our legs under the table. He was so gentle and loving with us. He, too, knew that life wasn’t forever. Signing the songs of old Ireland and playing with us in the dirt…
Whenever I walk by that house with my dog Thomas now, I remember the gardens he poured so much into. Out front and in the back, perennials and annuals, weeded and kept up with care and compassion. His favorite was the bleeding hearts of Jesus that came back year after year. You know- he never let my sisters and I leave that house without sending us home with a bouquet when there were flowers to be had.
He picked the very best blooms he had, cut them out and wrapped them in a wet paper towel and tin foil for his granddaughters, and sent them home with us. His gardens always looked a little sparse after we left- there were four of us. Of course, we didn’t get it at the time– we were so delighted and felt so special that we got a bouquet of flowers!… but as we grew older, and now long after his death I think about how much love was in those flowers. It wasn’t about what the neighbors would think of his gardens, or how hard he worked to have them to that state… cutting them and carefully arranging them for his granddaughters was ritual and right.
I was so tiny– maybe I don’t remember this well, now– but maybe my parents objected. Or my uncle. “Dad, those are the best you’ve got! Choose one of the ones going already. They’ll just wilt at the girls’ house, too.”
And maybe he answered something like, “I won’t always be here to give them flowers.” And that was the end of that.
Grandparents get it. Having seen their own kids grow up, think of everything they might have done differently, or where they accidentally got it right in parenting… and now this new phase of unabashed spoiling and spilling of love just everywhere… I think grandparents understand the closeness of the end of life, and the precious moments that they get with little ones who grow too quickly. I imagine that sometimes there’s a want to tell the young parents: your worries will always be with you– but you won’t always have me– just a few more minutes. Just a bit longer. Bring out the old china– yes, the same that you were never allowed to touch when you were younger, and we’ll have a tea party for dolls. Of course it’s expensive, collectible. But we need these memories and this experience! If it breaks, it’s only glass. These moments are precious.
So Jesus is at the house of Simon the leper with his disciples. His end is so close, and he knows it. He’ll be labeled a criminal of the government and to be given a terrible end. And yet… when a woman takes the most costly ointment to him, and breaks it open upon his head… these moments are precious. He sinks into it, despite and over the protest of his disciples, and lets her anoint him with the strong smelling oil. When reading it through, I heard the phrase with an Irish accent, actually: “You’ll always have the poor with ye. Butcha won’t always have me. I’ll be dead soon, you know.” And the disciples, still not understanding what the woman and the Christ know–that these moments are precious– maybe roll their eyes and hurry on the way, to the next meal, where there was to be bread and wine. But Jesus is a little more at peace about his life, and his death. A little more prepared.
We echo some of that preparedness during Lent. We re-orient our lives, and the time we have left, toward God and toward wholeness. Ash Wednesday itself, and the beginning of Lent, is designed to leave us remembering that we are dust and to dust we will eventually return. We, ourselves, are marked, marred… and then made new once again through One who crosses into death and swings around again to life everlasting. We reach toward healing. We realize then, that our moments are precious. That our wealth, our time, what it is that we have left is yes, to give to the poor, ….and also to give to those whom we love in community, because we’ll be dead soon, too, you know.
We are but human. When our stories line up with our Jesus’s own… when we see our families grow, and when we realize the reality of our limited existence, we see where there is love in abundance to be spent. We see what really matters– not the wealth, not the perfume, not the would-have-could-have-should-haves… but these very precious moments we have. And when we, like the woman with the perfume, lavish those we love in the here and now, we live fully in these moments. It won’t all be here, like this, forever. And that’s the beauty of it… it means so much more when we know it’s fleeting.
It’s not as though there is nothing to which we look forward, though. In every moment the dream of the future reaches in and touches the present with a sparkle of hope. In my family, I’m watching my parents prepare to be grandparents for the first time. My sister is three months away from a tiny baby, who has no idea how spoiled he’s going to be. My dad keeps tearing up and and saying over and over, “I’m going to be a grandpa!” and my mother, in the proper Irish fashion, is caught between loving on my sister Becky hard and remembering her own parents and how precious the moments we have together are, while we’re all still here to enjoy them.
In those precious moments before his death, Jesus is with those whom he loves. He’s treasuring the time and effort spent on his behalf. He’s sinking in the reality of what is and what will be, and he’s thinking of how he can make them understand. Whenever the good news of our reality of limited existence is shared in the world, we are blessed because life and this love is circular, and not linear. Even after our lives in this world end, we know something is to follow. We know that Christ has prepared the way. We remember what was, and we know what is to be. And we continue to walk alongside Jesus on this Lenten journey towards the next meal we’ll share together, and all that is to follow. But in the meantime, we lean into these precious moments, where the love that will never end, even after all the flowers have wilted and died, flows forth.