How close does someone have to be to you before you will “let your hair down,” before you will let your weaknesses and vulnerabilities show, before you can reveal your less-than-presentable parts?
This can be very difficult for us to do. So often we are told to lead with our strengths, to put a good face on things. And certainly a large sector of our economy is based on convincing us as consumers to buy products and services that will improve or camouflage our imperfections and short-comings, whether those goods be cosmetics or resumé-writing services.
So when we decide to confide in another person, to “let our hair down” with them, we generally want to be pretty sure that we can trust him or her with what we say, and who we are, and what we reveal about ourselves.
It can feel very risky to share who we truly are with another person. We see that in this morning’s Gospel – Mary anointing Jesus.
But first we need to get a couple of things clear. A version of this event appears in all four Gospels: Matthew’s and Mark’s version are pretty similar to each other; Luke situates the story much earlier in Jesus’ ministry and identifies the woman doing the anointing as a prostitute; Mark and Matthew don’t identify her at all.
John, however, tells the story very differently. Jesus is at the home of his friends Martha, Mary and Lazarus in Bethany, outside of Jerusalem. Some days before this Jesus had raised Lazarus from the dead – he was four days in the tomb – and restored him to sisters.
This family of siblings were probably Jesus’ closest friends, in addition to the Twelve. Mary was the one who wanted to sit and listen to Jesus’ teachings when he came to dinner; Martha was concerned to treat her guest right by making sure the meal was getting served on time – and yet even before Lazarus had been resuscitated, she professed her faith in Jesus as the Messiah.
At some point during this dinner party, as John tells it, Mary took very expensive perfume – it would have cost a year’s wages – and poured it over Jesus’ feet. And then she took off her head covering, unbound her long hair, and began to dry his feet.
What an intimate moment this is: Mary literally letting her hair down with Jesus, which in those days was not done outside of the family, and using her hair in place of the servant’s towel – the servant who would have already washed the feet of the dinner guests.
Judas protests at the waste and the expense; the Gospel writer wants us to see Judas as a greedy embezzler. But 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.’
Mary was anointing Jesus for burial, anticipating his death. Somehow she heard and understood in what Jesus had been saying and doing that it would come to this – that he would die, and that this was probably the last time she would be able to share a moment like this with him; the very next day would see Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey to the acclamation of the crowds, and all that would come after it.
By contrast Peter – just five days later – refuses to let Jesus wash his feet, when Jesus takes up the servant’s towel and basin at the Last Supper. Jesus tells Peter: “If I do not wash you, you have no part in me.” Now this being the Gospel of John, that statement has meaning on several different levels, but one of those meanings is that unless Peter can accept the intimacy and humility of Jesus taking on a servant’s role for those who follow him, he won’t really have gotten who and what Jesus is all about.
But Mary had gotten it – she understood that her friend Jesus was also her Lord, the one who was going to suffer and die for her – and the truest and best response was to serve him, to act as servant in the way that she could do. As a disciple, she became a servant, and in her service she acted prophetically – by anticipating Jesus’ death and by recognizing his kingship; anointing with oil carried both those connotations in the ancient world, and healing, as well. The closer Mary drew to Jesus, the more willing she was to be vulnerable, the more truth she saw and understood, and the more real her service was. The truth that Mary saw was difficult and painful; we can’t kid ourselves about that. But it shaped her response to Jesus, even in the face of Judas’ criticism; it allowed her to be a truer disciple.
As we have been walking through Lent our purpose has been to draw closer to Jesus, to put aside the habits and attitudes and predilections that keep us from intimacy with God. And if you are like me, you start with very good intentions – and even a good plan – only to have it pushed aside by events, unforeseen circumstances, inertia, or just plain tiredness; and we let ourselves down.
But when this happens, it’s an opportunity to come closer to God – to be honest, to acknowledge to ourselves and to God who we really are, and what is the nature of our short-comings and failures (particularly when we know that it is a pattern or a character trait with us). The gift of recognizing and owning our sin is not that it can be extracted from us, like having a bad tooth pulled; but rather that our whole self will be available to God, and that God can then use even the things that cause us so much trouble – usually in ways we could never have anticipated.
But that won’t happen unless we can let our hair down with the Lord, unless we are willing to be vulnerable with Jesus and sometimes with others. Staying and facing the truth about ourselves - rather than running away from what we don’t want to see – makes us much better disciples, much better servants of the Lord.
In these last days of Lent learn from Mary: sit at Jesus’ feet; let your hair down; be willing to give God your all; and know intimacy with Christ.
Let us pray.
O Lord, who has taught us that to gain the whole world and to lose our souls is great folly, grant us the grace so to lose ourselves so that we may truly find ourselves anew in the life of grace, and so to forget ourselves that we may be remembered in your kingdom. Amen. ~ Reinhold Niebuhr
Victoria Geer McGrath
All Saints’ Church, Millington, NJ
Fifth Sunday of Lent
March 17, 2013