As we approach the end of this Lenten series on Atonement, I can’t help but wonder whether our centuries of elaborate theories, on which the whole church has never agreed, don’t point to a more basic hesitation to believe the fundamental claim that we have indeed been reconciled with God. That somehow, through the life and death and resurrection of Jesus, whatever barrier may have existed between us and the Holy One has been definitively torn down.
We puzzle at this possibility and ask with Charles Wesley’s hymn:
And can it be that I should gain
an interest in the Savior’s blood!
Died he for me? who caused his pain!
For me? who him to death pursued?
Amazing love! How can it be ?
How indeed can it be, we wonder – probing the mechanisms by which Jesus might bring humankind into union with God. But we miss the point altogether if we forget to marvel at that union itself, at the reconciliation which exists and the connection which endures. It is this kind of wondering that Wesley invites in the next verse of that same hymn:
‘Tis mystery all: th’ Immortal dies!
Who can explore his strange design?
‘Tis mercy all; let earth adore. Let angel minds inquire no more.
A strange mystery indeed … stranger still if we can imagine how un-like us God is sometimes, most of all in the amazing extravagance of unconditional love. Can it be, atonement theories aside, that God might simply love us, for no reason, and with no reservations, through a strange mystery that boggles our minds as much as the Psalmist’s proclamation of rivers in the desert. Can it be that we are saved by love? Full stop.
We know that we go to great lengths to separate ourselves from God. Wandering down alluring paths, chasing after elusive riches, settling for other, not-so-amazing loves, and fearing that we might not be worth anything more.
Can it be that we set the caveats on salvation, conditions for communion, prerequisites for admission into God’s family? “God will save us, if we accept Jesus; if the Father’s wrath is assuaged; if his honor is preserved; if his justice is maintained; if the God-man dies; if the perfect sacrifice is offered; if the invitation is received.” If, if, if.
Can it be, though, that God is not an amplification of ourselves, not a mirror of our “if”-modified loves, our “if”-restrained loyalties?
Can it be that for no reason but love itself the very God of the universe is alive in each and every human soul and is pulsing through Creation? Can it be that the One who “who makes a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters” Isaiah says; is perfectly capable of finding a way into the hearts of you and me.
Can it be that the Psalmist was right in wondering
Where can I go from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?
Can it be that he was right, too, in answering this way
If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning
and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me fast.
Can it be that Paul was also right, when he said that
neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present,
nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus
Can it be that the image of God within us and the Spirit of God beyond us conspire in a saving unity that draws us more and more into the life of the Holy One?
Can it be that the union with God, which our souls seek, is found when explanation ceases and contemplation begins?
This is where we find ourselves in today’s Gospel, with a mind-boggling act by Mary of Bethany. Jesus visits his friends: Martha, Mary and the recently-raised-from-the-dead Lazarus for a dinner party at their home, a couple of miles outside Jerusalem.
Martha is of course busy getting the food ready, and Lazarus is at table, perhaps talking with some of the disciples, when Mary makes her way to the feet of Jesus and anoints them with a pound of an expensive, fragrant ointment of pure nard. She lingers there, wiping these well-walked feet with her very own hair.
This provocatively intimate moment between two friends caught the eye of Judas, who objected to the wastefulness of her behavior. ʺWhy was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?ʺ A noble question, perhaps, since this sum might be as much as a whole year’s pay. But the jousting of explanations that comes next reveals something more is afoot, with the Gospel writer questioning the motives of the soon-to-be-betrayer, and with Jesus snapping back “Leave her alone” and reminding everyone about the death he saw coming. “The poor you will always have with you,” he says, “but you will not always have me.”
Mary has discerned what the others did not. The tides were turning. Christ’s body was breaking. This was no moment for ordinary reasoning, but for irrationally-extravagant love. Perhaps she could hear the crack in Jesus’ voice, see a weariness of step, a furrowed brow, or an empty stare that betrayed an inner ferment, as he gathered up the power to face what would lie ahead.
Perhaps she knew that something was wrong, that he now needed a blessing. She comes near to him with the same perceptively healing gentleness that he showed to so many others – to the woman at the well, the blind ones in Jericho, the paralytic at Bethsaida, the lepers on the road, and even wee little Zacchaeus up in his tree, even the perpetually not-too-bright disciples, even maybe you and me…
But now his feet are the object of mercy; others take on his healing work. “See from his head, his hands, his feet, sorrow and love flow mingled down,” words we will sing in a few minutes time, marking this new moment in the life of Jesus, a moment of mingled emotion and shifting roles. Yes, Jesus still will kneel and wash the feet of his friends, but as he does, as we are transformed more and more into that Body of Christ.
Judas misses this meaning, misses the connection between friends partaking in each other’s love, and falls into the familiar temptation to make everything about money – a commodification of both the poor and the nard, reducing the fruits of the earth, the loving work of human hands, and the dignity of God’s people into charity and cash, exchangeable, transferable, without the intimate investment Mary shows.
Judas misses the fact that when we really love someone, we do all kinds of crazy things whose economics may be questionable – a pound of nard, an only-begotten Son, perhaps. And even if his desire is pure, Judas misses the one thing that is right before his eyes.
Like him we love big ideas, sensible plans, well-ordered syllabi, and practical strategies with quantifiable benchmarks of success. And these, like caring for the poor, are good, good things. But we can become lost
in them, and wander far from the God who is staring us in the face, far enough that it takes an irrationally prophetic acting out, an undeniably extravagant expression of love to catch our attention again.
We can be tempted to believe the lie that we’re somehow missing out on life if we’re not stressed-out, sleep-deprived, overworked, hypercaffeinated, perpetually entertained and well on our way to making a fortune and/or changing the world – preferably with a hefty dose of community activities, a better than average partner, and a house and cute dog for an added bonus. Mary tells us “STOP, stop, stop” and see what is in front of you. See – like she saw Jesus.
Yes the healing of the world is urgent, but to do that God’s way we need to learn to focus on the one thing. If we are to avoid making even the work of Christ into a project with a price tag, we need to practice an intense, attentive, extravagant love for one who is already before us – the roommate, the partner, the colleague, the familiar stranger on the street, the lonely neighbor down the hall. When we do this, then we might be ready to approach, with dignity, a wider suffering.
Maybe like me you’re juggling jobs to make ends meet, trying hard to just get by, and all this is sounding a little too mystical. But in these last days of Lent, I pray we will give ourselves the gift of some small place to focus bottle of nard’s worth of time:
Maybe call your mom. Speak a word of truth, however painful. Have a cup of tea with a potential new friend. Ask for something you desperately need. Forgive a festering hurt. Walk in this new-found spring weather for no reason other than to spend time with the One who calls you by name. Imagine what an act of extravagant love, for the one who is before your eyes, might be.
Whether your Lenten observance has been a paragon of perfection, or a wilderness disaster, we have time, still, to practice Mary’s style of love. And Holy Week will bring even more ritual moments of irrational intimacy – to praise the one we hoped would change the world, to have our feet washed by our Teacher, to weep at the foot of the cross, to run away in shame, and to marvel, speechless, at the one who is alive again.
All this is coming (not to mention a mission to heal the world and a Spirit to comfort and guide us) – but for now we have in Mary a precious moment with the vulnerable Jesus, one who longs for us, a moment to come near and manifest the unity we have in God by our care for another.
Can it be that this love is in us too? That same amazing love, which sought us out when we were far off, pulsing now through our veins? Can it be that Jesus has released a power in us? Can it be? Yes, of course … though extravagant love looks to others like foolishness, like a waste; a naïve, unrealistic choice. It makes “sense,” if you can call it that, only in the economy of God, only with the mind of Christ.
And here is where my favorite atonement image might actually help a little – itself more a contemplation than an explanation. It’s what the second century theologian Irenaeus called “recapitulation” – that in Christ, God returns humanity to its true purpose, not simply taking away sin but infusing Creation with a renewal of its original holiness. It’s a kind of cosmic do-over, with a little extra help this time. At every moment of his life, Jesus shows us another way, offers us another choice, demonstrates that rejection of God and each other are not inevitable.
It is, as Russian theologian Vladimir Lossky says, “the deification of created beings by uncreated grace.” A true union with God, not an eradication of our selfhood, nor a feeble acquaintance, but a sharing in the same energies of Life, so that the love which was in Christ Jesus could also erupt in Mary’s love for him, and in our love for those God sends to us. Anglican theologian Lancelot Andrews put it this way: “Whereby, as before He of ours, so now we of His are made partakers.” Can it be? Can it be?
How bold we might become if we really believed, if we trusted that Jesus has already pioneered this way of foolishly boundless love, that we don’t have to be the first to risk awkwardness at a dinner party. Jesus and now Mary of Bethany go before us, along with the saints and sages of the generations, the cloud of witnesses whose lives were filled with God enough to overflow. Can it be that extravagant love is in us, too, ready to be released when we but focus on the One before our eyes, and so more and more become partakers in the very God of the Universe and this being-redeemed world.
Can we take our part in this strange mystery, an atonement in which God chooses us for no reason at all? And so we ask, with John Donne –
Wilt thou love God, as he thee? Then digest,
My soul, this wholesome meditation,
How God the Spirit, by angels waited on
In heaven, doth make his Temple in thy breast.
The Father having begot a Son most blest,
And still begetting, (for he ne’er be gone)
Hath deigned to choose thee by adoption,
Co-heir t’ his glory, and Sabbath’ endless rest.
‘Twas much that man was made like God before,
But, that God should be made like man, much more
Amazing love, how can it be.
~The Reverend Joshua Thomas,
Episcopal University Chaplain