Today is Wednesday in Holy Week, a day traditionally used to commemorate Mary’s anointing of Jesus at Bethany (John 12:1-8). Mary’s act of breaking the alabaster jar and pouring the ointment on Jesus’ feet is “wasteful” and “useless,” to use Malcolm Guite‘s description, and Judas chastises Mary for exactly that. But, as Guite goes on to point out, following Jesus often results in actions that the world considers a waste.
In my American context, filled to the brim as it is with pragmatism and practicality, I need to hear Jesus’ words in response to Judas – what Mary did was a “beautiful thing.” When Christ calls a woman or man, he bids her or him to come and die, and I think this call to die includes dying to my American cultural pragmatic insistence on tangible results.
What are some examples of this? Guite talks about a mother providing prolonged care for her severely disabled daughter, describing the act as “pouring out every day the unreturnable love and care that so many in society think, like Judas, was a ‘waste,’ but was, somehow, in spite of everything, renewing a beauty and a hope” (The Word in the Wilderness, 162). What comes to my mind is the rush to application in both preaching and theology. What use is a sermon if it isn’t “practical”? What use is a doctrine if it doesn’t provide me with some “practical” skills or steps to improve my life? I often hear, and have in the past asked myself, the latter question with respect to the Trinity. What use is the doctrine of the Trinity?
Of course here we could mention that the doctrine of the Trinity is vital because the goal of theology is to know God. But Judas’ question to Mary (“why wasn’t this sold and the money given to the poor?”) and our questions about the usefulness of theology demand something more than contemplation – we want tangible results! I think the story of Mary reminds us that the contemplative life is a “beautiful thing,” not to be divorced from all Jesus’ calls to action on behalf of others but also not to be jettisoned for the sake of “usefulness.”