I did something extravagant this week, something I’ve dreamed about doing for the last seven years while living on the East Coast.
I went to the New Camaldoli monastery at Big Sur, high on cliffs above the Pacific Ocean. It felt like I was on the edge of the planet overlooking the vast sea.
The monks chant psalms three times a day in the chapel, and their chanting shapes the rhythm of the day.
In my short time there, I found a few precious moments of solitude and prayer, and a time to just be still, listen, watch God’s awesome creation unfold in front of me.
I hate to break the news to you: I didn’t think much about the Church of the Incarnation at all. There was no cell phone coverage, no WiFi. I was completely off the grid. I didn’t do any work, and no rich man could have been more extravagant than I.
Today we hear of the extravagance of Mary of Bethany, and the nard oil she uses to anoint Jesus’ feet before his death.
By the way, there are several Marys in the gospels – this is the Mary who is the sister of Martha who is always in the kitchen, and sister of Lazarus, who was raised from the dead. This is an extraordinary family.
How Mary got the nard oil is unsaid, but it suggests this is a wealthy family. You could not get more extravagant than nard oil in the ancient world.
Nard, or spikenard as it is also called, is an herb that grows to be about 10 feet tall in northern India, in the deep woods at the foot of the Himalayas.
In the time of Jesus, rich yellow oil was painstakingly extracted from the spikenard plant and placed in alabaster boxes.
It was then carefully transported by caravan through India and Persia and across the long flat desert of what is now Iraq and Jordan before it finally reached the markets of Jerusalem.
The oil of spikenard was much sought by kings and wealthy Romans throughout the ancient Mediterranean world.
The oil is said to cure migraines and bring calm to those who inhale its aroma.
Nard oil has a sweet fragrance similar to sandalwood, and, in fact, nard is one of the ingredients in sandalwood incense.
As you can well imagine, the oil of spikenard is expensive. As we just heard, it cost Mary 300 denari for one pound of nard oil.
Let me translate that for you: it took a common laborer one day to earn one denari – so it cost nearly one year’s wages to purchase that pound of nard oil.
In our day, spikenard oil is still costly – a pound now runs about $480. There are many places on this globe today where that would be one year’s wages.
Keep this in mind as we hear of Mary’s shocking extravagance in John’s gospel.
In the story, Jesus comes to Bethany to see Mary and Martha, and their brother Lazarus. They all surely know this will be their farewell in the final hours before Jesus’ death.
After this sad meal, Mary brings out this incredibly expense, wonderfully aromatic oil, and she anoints Jesus’ feet, and then wipes his feet with her hair.
Mary lovingly prepares Jesus for his death with the most expensive oil imaginable.
Jesus, who ministered to so many, who raised Mary’s brother Lazarus from the dead, who fed the 5,000, who cured the sick and made the lame walk, who gave living water to the Samaritan woman, and who made the blind see – this one time, Jesus allows himself to be ministered to with expensive nard oil.
There is another reference in the Bible to spikenard oil, from the Song of Solomon, which is a love song. Perhaps Jesus sings it:
“How sweet is your love, my sister … how much better your love than wine, and the fragrance of your oils than any spice!”
The love of Jesus in these final hours fills the room like perfume, and those who are there embrace his love, and hold it in their hearts through the crushing crisis that is about to come.
Mary returns his love by preparing him with the oil of kings.
Lest we forget, Judas is in that room, too. And the chain of events that is about to unfold will take Judas to a terrible end.
But for now Judas asks a question, and it is not an unreasonable question: “Why was this perfume not sold…and the money given to the poor?” Judas asks.
Why, Judas asks, is this extravagant oil being used to wipe the feet of Jesus? Couldn’t this money be better spent on the poor?
The gospel writer whispers to us that Judas is a thief and has no intention of spending the money on the poor. But that evades the question, and the question lingers unanswered in the room at Bethany – and still lingers in the air down through the ages to us:
Couldn’t that money be better spent on the poor?
“Leave her alone,” Jesus replies. “She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”
His answer is the answer of love.
Today Jesus reminds us there is love in this room, and he bids us to linger awhile precisely because the poor are with us, and precisely because we have work to do tomorrow. But today, linger awhile.
When I hear this, I think of all of the loving hands of those who have prepared this space for worship Sunday after Sunday, year after year.
I think of the loving hands that have pressed the linens, and polished the silver used in our Holy Communion; and those who have baked the bread, filled the cruets with wine, and arranged the flowers that will soon adorn this sacred space at Easter.
And I think of those who clean up after the rest of us have gone for the day.
The poor are with us, the needs are great. But love comes first, God comes first, worship comes first – and from this all else will follow.
Without love, our work is empty.
Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind and soul, as God loves you.
Today, linger here awhile in the love of God; Jesus is filling us with life and love, and the strength to leave this room to feed each other, and to feed the poor in body, mind and spirit.
God provides everything we need to do all we are given to do. God provides abundantly, richly, all born from God’s extravagant love for us.
And so be extravagant in your love for the living Christ dwelling within us, and be extravagant in your love for each other.
Worship fully, pray earnestly, sing loudly, give generously, and share in the bread and wine of our Holy Eucharist this Sunday and every Sunday.
The poor are with us; tomorrow there is work to be done. Today, linger awhile in the love of Christ who is among us. AMEN