Canon Treasurer - Revd Canon Leanne Roberts
‘One Art’, by Elizabeth Bishop:
The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.
Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.
Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.
I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.
I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.
— Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.
Yesterday, I spoke about the title I’ve chosen for these Holy Week addresses: The Kingdom is Now: Fear and the unlived life. I believe that it is fear, in its various, often hidden and usually complex guises, that stops us being fully alive as God intends us to be: citizens of his Kingdom, which is not then, but right now.
The characters and situations we meet in Holy Week provide us with much to think about in terms of those internal aspects of ourself that can be governed by fear. Today I’m going to focus on ‘Fear of loss’.
Let’s remind ourselves of the Gospel passage set for today. John 12, verses 1-11:
Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, ‘Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?’ (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, ‘Leave her alone. 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.’
When the great crowd of the Jews learned that he was there, they came not only because of Jesus but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. So the chief priests planned to put Lazarus to death as well, since it was on account of him that many of the Jews were deserting and were believing in Jesus.
Mary is no stranger to loss: she had recently lost her beloved brother Lazarus, who Jesus then raised from the dead. But I wonder how Lazarus was when he returned? Surely not unchanged? And then there was the gossip, the speculation, and the deadly ire of the chief priests who wanted to stop the rumours dead.
We also have this unusual family set-up of three siblings: no mention of parents, or spouses.
So Mary, and her sister Martha, and her brother Lazarus would be no strangers to loss. And, I would suggest, fear of loss: fear when the sisters knew their brother was dying; fear when Jesus failed to show up when they felt they needed him most; fear of losing their brother again due to religious and political wranglings.
And then we get this extraordinary scene during or perhaps just after dinner. Mary, Martha, Lazarus, Jesus and his disciples were there. At home, at ease, though I imagine tension and foreboding were ever-present what with the avid onlookers, and Jesus’ journey towards Jerusalem and – as we know – the cross. Not the most relaxed of dinner parties, perhaps, but an attempt at family and refreshment and respite in the midst of anxiety and uncertainty.
Although Mary may have been reverent, there is a passion and tenderness present that makes this encounter almost unbearably intimate. Despite the disciples’ grumblings, Martha’s harried resentment, Lazarus’ close presence, to some extent this tableau we hear described contains, for these brief moments, only the two of them, Jesus and Mary. They are the bright spots in the room.
The intensity of the scent of the perfume, which would quickly have become overwhelming in what was probably a small space, matches the intensity of the act – and the intensity of the feeling that prompted it.
Nard, or spikenard as it is also known, can be found throughout scripture to represent the passion between two people – as in the Song of Songs – and as an indication of the very best. Nothing was better, more costly, more symbolic of worth and depth of feeling than nard.
Mary fears losing Jesus, her beloved. Instead of being stuck in that fear, weeping in the corner, or busying herself, she takes her opportunity, makes the most of that moment to express what governs her fear of loss, which is love: love for this man who gives her permission to be fully herself.
And she repays this gift – the gift of being fully alive, fully oneself – in the only way she can manage. She doesn’t take him aside and tell him how much she loves him, how much she fears for him. She doesn’t take to the floor and make a grand speech. All she has is her feeling, and the precious nard. She enacts her love, rather than speaking it.
This brought to my mind another poem, Apology for Understatement, by John Wain:
Forgive me that I pitch your praise too low,
Such reticence my reverence demands,
For silence falls with laying on of hands.
Forgive me that my words come thin and slow.
This could not be a time for eloquence,
For silence falls with healing of the sense.
We only utter what we lightly know.
And it is rather that my love knows me.
It is that your perfection set me free.
Verse is dressed up that has nowhere to go.
You took away my glibness with my fear.
Forgive me that I stand in silence here.
It is not words could pay you what I owe.
Yesterday, I shared Marcus Aurelius’ assertion that fear of past or future is futile, because we cannot lose what we do not have. We only ever have the now, this present moment. Mary seizes the moment, lives fully in the ‘now’, and gives all that she has which is beyond words.
The scent of nard lingers. Although this might be fanciful I wonder if, when Jesus was imprisoned, and when he was being flogged, and when he was being nailed to the cross – just a few days after Mary’s anointing, remember – whether, despite the smell of filth, and blood, he occasionally caught the remnants of that perfume on his skin, and it reminded him of love. Not just his love, but her love, too. Of how someone had given everything she had, recklessly, extravagantly, beautifully, for him. Her moment of expression may have rippled through other moments, other fears.
How might we respond to Mary’s outpouring, and Jesus’ affirmation of it? How might it speak to the fear inside each of us – of what we’re most afraid of losing, which will be different for us all?
I wonder if we might risk being reckless? Risk living in the moment, despite our fear which is borne of past experience, and located in potential future events over which we have little knowledge or control. Risk trading our fear of loss for awareness of what we have in this moment, which is love received if we will accept it, and love to give, if we can bring ourselves to offer it.
Risk being alive in the Kingdom of God, which is now.
To end, a poem, ‘Moments’, by Mary Oliver:
There are moments that cry out to be fulfilled.
Like, telling someone you love them.
Or giving your money away, all of it.
Your heart is beating, isn’t it?
You’re not in chains, are you?
There is nothing more pathetic than caution
when headlong might save a life,
even, possibly, your own.