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Brazen Acts of Beauty

By Kim Eshleman

In John 12:1-8, Jesus visits the home of his friend, Lazarus, in Bethany on his way to Jerusalem just a few days before the Passover. His other friends, Martha and Mary, are also there. Just prior to this visit, Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, further establishing himself as a threat in the eyes of the chief priests and Pharisees. Suffering, death, and grief are on the horizon and the looming threat is real. But this home is a place of respite. Martha has prepared a feast and friends are gathered around the table. As they dine together, Mary approaches and kneels at the feet of Jesus, anointing them with expensive oil and wiping them clean with her long hair. John writes that the home was “filled with the fragrance of the perfume.” When Judas protests, haughtily implying that this expensive resource would have been better used to support the poor, Jesus firmly replies that this is Mary’s gift to give – one that she has been keeping for the day of his burial. He reminds the friends and disciples around the table, that “you always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”

Mary’s act is a bold one, brave, impulsive, and maybe even reckless. Perhaps it is an act of letting go or a desperate act of holding on, or simply an act of gratitude, hospitality, or veneration. In any case, Mary’s tender care for her friend, her humility, her generosity, her love, transforms this room into a sacred space, a space of beauty. I imagine each player in this scene held in the embrace of this rich fragrance, candlelight, and the sustaining presence of friends and family. The hostility of the world and the dark still looms large outside – this act can’t change that – but in this room, there is a pause, an exhale, an overflowing, and a fleeting glimpse of things as they should be. 

This Lenten season, we are marking the start of a third year of living in a global pandemic. A war rages in Ukraine; political and ideological divisions grow deeper each day; senseless violence continues to rob us of the people we love and our sense of security; injustice goes unchecked; and in a culture of excess, there are still families who don’t know where their next meal will come from. The world is not as it should be

Still, there are signs of life, light passing through shadow, stations for rest, a fragrance of hope on the wind. Rainbow drawings that hung in windows in March of 2020, now hang in the homes of grieving families, reminding us that distance and death can’t stop us from reaching out to one another. In front of hospitals and nursing homes, you can still find signs praising the dedication of heroes, reminding us of the courage it takes to show up to fight for life and the fortitude it takes to stand in, hold hands, and bear witness to precious last breaths. Half a world away in a bomb shelter, a girl too young to carry the burden of war, sings an anthem of freedom out to a crowd of weary citizens seeking refuge from violence . In the same ravaged country, a mother dusts ashes from the keys of her piano, sitting untouched in the bombed out ruins of her home, and confidently plays a postlude of holding on and remembering, of letting go and facing whatever is to come next. This kind of brazen beauty rises up, it resists death and darkness, it lets in the light, wraps us up, and reminds us of what can be, what will be. 

In Isaiah 43:16-21, God makes a promise…

Thus says the Lord, who makes a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters, who brings out chariot and horse, army and warrior; they lie down, they cannot rise, they are extinguished, quenched like a wick: Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. The wild animals will honor me, the jackals and the ostriches; for I give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert, to give drink to my chosen people, the people whom I formed myself so that they might declare my praise.

…A promise of something new, a way forward. And we are called to help bring it forth. 

So until the world of now looks like the world of this promise, may we boldly seek beauty, give lavishly, sing with abandon, and love extravagantly.