The Miasma of Death and the Antioxidant of Love

Jn. 12:1-8
Lent 5

Death was in the air. In the passages before today’s reading from John, we are told that Caiaphas, the high priest, predicted that Jesus would be killed. Jesus, His disciples and followers were aware that there were efforts to arrest Jesus and that there were plots against Jesus. As a captive people, the Jews were familiar with frequent executions by the Romans and their satellite occupying governments. Hundreds of crucifixions took place. Everyday there were new crucifixions. A miasma of death hung over Jerusalem and over the country. (Webster’s Dictionary tells us that the term miasma means an influence or atmosphere that tends to deplete or corrupt.) It is a corrosive atmosphere. It is the atmosphere of death.

This miasma, sense of death, was in the air as Jesus journeyed to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover. He and his followers stopped in Bethany at the house of Mary, Martha and Lazarus. They were friends and followers of Jesus. In fact, when everyone thought that Lazarus was gone, Jesus brought him up from death. So the thought of death was even in the air at the house of Lazarus, as was the thought of resurrection. The story is loaded with connotations.

While at the supper table, Mary came and washed Jesus’ feet. Such an act was a normal sign of courtesy and good hospitality. But Mary went beyond common courtesy. She anointed Jesus’ feet and then wiped them with her hair. Moreover, the oil that she used was extremely expensive. Scholars estimate its value at $300.00 or more. Now that is an extravagant action even by today’s standards! This extravagance marks the extent of Mary’s love for Jesus, her devotion and her faith. It is an exuberant act, going beyond common courtesy and norms. We are reminded of other anointings in the Bible. When the Magi came to the birth of Jesus, they brought gold, frankincense and myrrh. Myrrh was the ointment that was used both for anointing kings as well as for funerals. In both the story of the magi and that of Mary’s anointing, there is the double connotation of Jesus as a king and of his anticipated death. Death was in the air.

How do you speak out when there is such a miasma of death, such an atmosphere of foreboding? You speak out with love, adoration and faith, and sometimes this can only be done by an outrageous or non-conventional act. Mary wiped her lord’s feet with her hair! By convention women kept their hair tied up and their heads covered. Only the slatternly would loose her hair, let alone wipe someone’s feet with it. We need not impugn Mary’s character or morals. By her loosening her hair and wiping her lord’s feet, Mary is laying open and bare the extent of her strong devotion, love and faith.

Judas misses this reality. He sees the extravagance of Mary’s devotion as wasteful, when the ointment could have been sold and used to feed the poor. We know that Judas is being duplicitous, that he is using the argument of practical charity to foil the message of Mary’s devotion. Jesus’ comment that “the poor are always with us,” on the one hand may seem heartless. He is, of course, quoting from a passage in Deuteronomy. The point that is being made is that there are always occasions for charity, but the times for love and devotion have to be recognized and taken advantage of when they come along. The extravagant acts of love and devotion are important in articulating one’s faith and in changing the atmosphere or perception of things.

So it was for Mary and Christ’s followers. By showing forth their love, devotion and faith to the master, they were able to reach beyond the aura or miasma of death that was in the air and that was impending during the weeks before Passover and the crucifixion.

Now for a story. My wife teaches a writing seminar in which the participants are all over seventy years old. They write poetry, biography and travel pieces. Some are very pedestrian and not very good. Others are extraordinary and wonderful. Nevertheless, they are bound by their extraordinary commitment to and love of writing.   A couple of weeks ago Faye showed me the work of a woman who lives in a retirement community. According to her, most of the people there are in fairly good shape and participate in a lot of very interesting activities. She got the idea of writing the biographies of five men who served in WWII. Their experiences were unique and interesting. The lady said that many of the people had lived very full lives and were still enjoying being engaged in various activities and pursuits. But, she noted, there was one constant that defined this community, and that was this: everyone there lived under the canopy, the atmosphere, the miasma of death. Death was the constant guest in the room. It never left. It was always waiting to claim someone.

“Well,” you might say, “that is true for everyone who grows old. In the greater sense it is true of all of us.” When you step back and look at society, death shows its hand constantly. Since the slaughter three months ago in Newtown, there have been hundreds and hundreds of deaths in the United States by guns. They continue to pile up. We can talk also about the specter of death from auto accidents or cancer or other illnesses. We read in the papers and see on the news the results of wars all over the world. Death is our constant companion, whether we are aware of it or not. Death can take various forms, loss of dignity, meaning, opportunity or hope. With death comes despair, nihilism, gloom and doom, loss of values and meaning.

For you and me, like Mary, love, adoration and faith, brought about by our encounter with and knowledge of Christ Jesus enable us to love through the miasma, the atmosphere of death and despair. How is this so? Well, I think love, devotion and faith act like antioxidants in our lives. Every morning my wife eats a bowl of blueberries. In so doing she loads herself up with things called antioxidants. “Some antioxidants are minerals and others are enzymes, which are protein molecules that facilitate chemical reactions necessary for cells to function properly.” (Here I am following what was recently reported in the Consumer Reports monthly newsletter “On Health, vol. 25, num. 4”)

What antioxidants have in common is their ability to block the action of free radicals: unstable chemical fragments that can wreak havoc on healthy components in your body’s cells. This damage can cause cells to grow and reproduce abnormally parts of a dangerous chain reactions.” This can lead to cancer, cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, macular degeneration, etc.

Using the antioxidants as a metaphor, it seems to me that love, devotion and faith change the way our minds, reason and emotions work. They can even change our physical reactions. For the Christian, extravagant acts of loving-kindness, of genuine devotion, of sincere faith change things: they fight back against the miasma, or atmosphere of death and despair.

Hence it is that I do not think within the Church that the choice is between buildings or people, giving in commemoration or in thankfulness to have a place that is beautiful and sacred works against charity. Rather it leads to and results in charity. A parish, a shrine, is an antioxidant to the secular materialism that kills the soul.

This fifth Sunday in Lent we think of the pending death of our Lord, of the agony of the cross and of our sinfulness and faithlessness. Perhaps there is an irony here. You see, on the road to Jerusalem Jesus is preparing to make the extraordinary act of love, devotion and faith, as he becomes the sacrificial, atoning “lamb of God, that takes away the sins of the world” – of you and of me.

“Lift up your hearts. We lift them up to the Lord.” – Amen