Once upon a time there lived a little girl named Mary. She lived many, many years ago in a small town called Bethany in a very special, and she would come to find out, a very holy land.
From the very earliest times in her life, Mary felt she was surrounded by kind and loving people. There were her parents, who worked very hard to provide a good, clean and happy home. She also had an older sister, Marta, who seemed more like a mother to her sometimes, and her brother, Lazarus, closer to her in age – a tender young boy who doted on her and who grew into a kind and gentle man of few words, a man whom everyone knew delighted in simplicity and prayerful reflection.
Before she could even speak her feelings about it, Mary knew that “home” was where she liked best. Her family and home, like the families and homes of just about everyone she knew in her small town, was a sacred place – a place where, she knew in her heart, the most important thing about her life was made and made to grow. She would come to know this thing as love – and she would come to know many ways in which love could be made alive.
When Mary was little, one of her favorite things about life in their home was the table. The table was the centerpiece of life in Mary’s home. She always felt a special kind of warmth at table. The whole extended family would come and eat together. They rose at dawn almost every day and had a simple meal of bread and curds made from goat’s milk or sheep’s milk. Sometimes, when she was very small, her mother would let her add a little honey to her breakfast – or on holidays, even a tiny bit of the thick, sweet date syrup that was a bit more difficult to obtain.
After the morning meal everyone would go about their daily tasks. Mother would grind the barley – or sometimes even wheat – in order to make their daily bread for dinner. This took a lot of time and effort because enough bread had to be made for the evening meal with some leftover for morning.
Father and the other men and boys would do the work that was necessary, be it in the fields with crops, or in the towns where there was always someone’s house that needed building or maintaining.
Mary had specific household tasks. She liked to make the bread, and she was good at shaping the flat loaves and placing them directly on the fire coals – tending them gently so they wouldn’t burn beyond being deliciously singed around the edges. She loved the smell of the baking bread! She also loved the smell of the goat or sheep milk cheeses and the ripe olives that were part of every evening meal. There were also large dishes of cooked vegetables; there were beans and grains that were seasoned with onions and garlic, perhaps with a little cumin or coriander. In Mary’s family, the older women were in charge of preparing any meats that were to be part of the feast. Most often the family ate fish, which was plentiful and not expensive. Sometimes they had chicken or eggs, but more frequently there was pigeon which was abundant and by far the easiest to obtain. Lamb was reserved for holy days – and as it would cook over the brazier just outside the front door, garlic blending with the heady smell of the meat – Mary would bow her head and give thanks to the lamb for giving its life for their nourishment and delight – and to God for giving the lamb!
The hearty aromas of the different foods that were prepared fresh each day were intoxicating to her! Mother and Marta would often poke fun at Mary as she seemed to drift away into a trance – sitting over a bowl she had brought to the table and smiling at the loveliness of its contents. “Mary, my little dreamer…!” Mother once said as she gently stroked her daughter’s hair. Marta was not quite as kind; once she even frowned as she impatiently tugged at a few strands of Mary’s hair. But her annoyance was never long-lived, and Mary knew that deep down, she had a very close friend in her sister of many opinions.
Mary always felt a sense of honor as she helped clean the dining area and prepare the table for the evening meal. Each meal was a form of worship, she felt – an act of praise to God. As the common bowls of vegetables and meats were passed – as each person small or large, young or old dipped their hand or a corner of bread in, it felt to Mary like the family bond was being strengthened as much as when the prayers were offered together. She felt so lucky to be a part of such a beautiful clan made of such reverent relations, each and every one simply awed by the marvels God had bestowed upon them – in each other, in their small and humble community and in the sustenance with which they were so generously graced.
After the evening meal and before night fell, the whole family would relax around the table. Some would remove themselves to nearby places on the floor, sitting or even curling up on mats made of fleece or animal hide – here and there a small pile of rough fabric. But all would settle into a stillness so deep, Mary felt she could almost hear her own heart beat to the sound of her own thoughts. What she could actually hear, however, was the sound of her father’s voice or one of the men in their extended family, reading from a scroll that belonged to a neighbor or the local synagogue. There were even times – many of them – when there was no scroll to be had and one of the men or a number of them would take turns telling the stories Mary was coming to know so well.
The stories they told were stories of salvation – how God had perfectly created the world and how people had behaved so wrongly so often, but how God had always continued to love them. All the stories and songs they learned at home were also told within the rhythmic and repeated ritual in which their entire community engaged at the nearby synagogue. Both Mary and her sister Marta participated as much as they were allowed in this most holy activity, playing tambourines and singing and dancing to the psalms they loved. The worship times seemed to bring Mary to a place she thought of as very near to the heavenly realm.
As days turned into years, the wonderful meals continued. So did the wonderful stories after dinner. Sometimes the relaxing evenings were interrupted by news of some conflict, or even violence, in the region. The Roman government or the local puppet king, Herod, might foist some action upon the residents of their little town. Such struggles usually had to do with taxation or some brand of honor the emperor or Herod felt was owing. The town made every attempt to get through these times with as little disruption to daily life as possible. Mary’s family did so too; the only change being the tone and intensity of the prayers they offered.
As Mary grew up, it seemed that before she knew it, her brother Lazarus had become head of the household, and she soon began to perceive a special kind of fulfillment in the way he led the household’s daily activities. Even more in the way he guided their prayers.
Lazarus had become quite a young man in their family and in the community. He took great pleasure in frequently taking himself into the hills around their town, sometimes spending a number of days in quiet reflection. He didn’t make much of this, but once or twice he spoke softly to Mary about how much closer he felt to God in quiet of the hills.
And then one morning, as Lazarus returned from the hills, there was a man walking by his side. At first they appeared almost like brothers, and Mary had to remind herself they were not. But as she came to know her brother’s new friend, Yeshua, and found him to be equally kind and gentle – and perhaps even wiser – she knew they might as well be brothers. She began to embrace him in her spirit. Marta did too, even speaking to Mary when they were alone about this strange kind of warmth she felt in her heart when Yeshua spoke. It soon began to seem that, when he was around – which was never often enough – the sanctity they knew in their home and in their meals and prayers, was lifted somehow to a place even closer to God’s presence.
For nearly three years Mary’s little family seemed to count the days in between Yeshua’s visits. Lazarus would often go into one of the surrounding towns to hear him speak. And he’d return to their home, full of tales of how their friend had taught in the streets and in the synagogues – how he healed lepers, gave the blind their sight, made the deaf to hear and the lame to walk. Mary would soon find herself climbing the ladder outside their front door to the roof, a basket of laundry on her shoulder needing to be hung and dried in the wind, and she would sit sometimes for hours so sweetly amazed by all the things she was learning. Whenever she could, she would sit at Yeshua’s feet and listen to every word he said – always certain that what fell from his lips was, indeed, more valuable than pearls, because it drew her very heart to God so completely.
And then one day something dreadful happened. Her dear brother, who had been her closest friend, fell terribly ill. Virtually overnight his condition worsened, until he lay almost entirely still, his breathing very odd when he breathed at all. Mary and Marta sent for Yeshua who they knew was about two days distance, near a small town close to the opposite side of the River Jordan.
And then, finally, Lazarus breathed his last. The sisters clung to each other as everything around them in their little home and in their village swam, stinging, mixed with their tears. The smell of death took over, seeping into every corner of their lives.
With the help of their closest friends and relatives, they roused themselves in order to clean and bind their brother’s lifeless body and place it in the small burial cave just outside the village. The returned to their home and veiled themselves in black clothing, much of which was given them for this use by their neighbors, and sat, praying for their lost brother – wishing Yeshua had come.
For four long days Mary and Marta sat in the deepest sadness they’d ever known. At last, a breathless friend came hesitatingly to their door, afraid to enter and disturb their prayerful stillness. “Yeshua has come,” he whispered quickly, pointing toward the roadway into town. Marta stood, looked to her sister and to the door, and without speaking, ran from the room, through the courtyard and toward the road. Mary sat. Her tears, which she’d begun to think were all gone, poured silently down her cheeks until, no longer able to contain herself, she bent over, rocking on the small plain stool upon which she’d been holding her grief stricken love for Lazarus.
Marta soon returned and begged he come to meet their teacher and friend. Mary immediately obeyed and, when she saw him, bent to the ground, clutching Yeshua’s feet and whispering her prayer, “Lord, if you had been here…” his gentle hand stroked her hair, just as her mother had done so long ago, and he lifted her to her feet. It was then she saw his face, crumpled, the tears flowing. She took his hand and led him to the tomb.
Yeshua spoke. Marta spoke. But Mary could hardly tell what they said. The entire world had begun to swim again, even though she was not, this time, looking through tears. She felt like she was floating as she saw the bound figure of a man walk from the dark interior of the cave. And without knowing, she moved toward him and helped the small group of friends take away the wrappings.
There was great commotion all around the entire town as the sisters brought their resurrected brother home. Their teacher and friend had departed without words, leaving them, their joy complete, to refresh their loving home.
The Passover was near, only a week away. Three days after their brother was raised from the dead, Mary went to the local marketplace, now with additional vendors whose booths were fairly bursting with extravagant wares meant to enhance everything from daily meals to high and holy worship. Slowly she moved toward the bustling knot of stalls and patrons. It was still early morning and rather cool, so there were many who had come. She took advantage of the fact that those who knew her might well leave her to her business, as they were shaken and even a little suspicious about the recent events in Mary’s household. Occasionally someone would whisper, pointing toward her only with their eyes.
Mary ignored them. She felt entirely immersed in that warmth she knew when Yeshua was near. She gazed at the ground and, using her sense of smell, found her way surprisingly quickly to the booth of the man who sold rare perfumes. The intoxicating creams and oils were very expensive – so much so that the vendor was pleased to supply each patron with an alabaster jar in which to transport and store his precious merchandise.
Almost without thinking, Mary selected a particular variety of spikenard that had been blended far away in the east. The man selling to her was not surprised by her choice – these exotic fragrances were especially prized by women, even more than the jewelry he knew they loved so much. But when Mary told him how much of the ointment she wished to purchase, the man almost dropped a pair of jars he was placing on a shelf behind his booth. He stood completely still, his brows coming together over slightly pained eyes. He looked her up and down and, before he could even speak, Mary withdrew a large purse from beneath the mantle covering the tunic she wore.
Quickly, the man took a polished gourd shell and dipped it into the large crock containing the spikenard, filling one of the larger alabaster jars. As soon as he had sealed the jar with melted wax, he snatched the money from Mary. It amounted to almost a year’s wages that might be earned by a famer or craftsman. The man sniffed loudly, then spat as he turned brusquely away from Mary and toward what he knew would be a much lesser sale.
Mary slowly made her way home and hid the jar in the far corner beneath the raised couch upon which she and her sister slept.
The very next day there was to be a celebration – a dinner for Yeshua. From the break of day the entire house was bustling. Like it was when she was a child, Mary noticed the mixture of smells that arose in their midst, one kind of scent overtaken by another, equally mouth-watering, as dish after dish was made ready. Lazarus sat next to Yeshua at table and Marta, as usual, happily served.
In a moment when she knew she safely absent herself, albeit briefly, Mary crept to the corner of the next room – the room in which she and her sister slept. She knelt and twisted her body so she could reach the alabaster jar. She drew it to her breast and held it tight, closing her eyes and whispering a prayer of thanksgiving and another prayer of hope. She unbound her hair, which had been tied back with a thin veil during the day’s preparations, rose and walked slowly to the low dining table around which mostly men – many of them Yeshua’s closest friends who traveled with him just about everywhere – were reclining on cushions, eating. She knelt behind and just to the left of Yeshua, broke the wax seal on the jar, and lifted the lid.
Almost immediately the entire room was filled with a scent so sweet and luscious, a different kind of murmuring began among the guests. Mary dipped her left hand into the jar and softly stroked Yeshua’s hair, just as he had done to her at the tomb. No one moved as she edged, so gracefully, jar in her hands, toward Yeshua’s feet, and upon those feet she poured almost half the jar’s contents. She rubbed his feet gently and then, as if the extravagance of the perfume itself were not enough, prostrated herself so that she might wipe his feet with her hair.
She then came up to her knees, looked at Yeshua’s smiling face, then to her sister who stood near the brazier, eyes wide, mouth slightly open. Somehow Mary knew the people in the room began to get excited. Vaguely she had the sense that one among Yeshua’s cohort objected to her gift, but that was overwhelmed for her and almost all the others by the gentle remarks her teacher and friend was speaking about her kindness.
Later she was told he’d made reference to his own death and that she had been anointing him for burial. And while this would ordinarily have been as disturbing as the thought of losing her brother, she somehow knew that everything was as it should be and that all would be well indeed.
The next morning, Mary, Marta and Lazarus walked the two miles into Jerusalem for the festival. Soon, they found themselves among many of their friends who knew and loved Yeshua as they did. They were also among a great many others they did not know, all of whom seemed to love their friend and teacher – most of whom were shouting loudly for him in praise and joy. There were branches in the hands of those who lined the street – they were waving them and sometimes throwing them into the street to keep the dust from obscuring the view as Yeshua – riding a donkey! – rode slowly into the city toward the temple.
Once again the world began to swim all around Mary. She and her brother and sister held each other tight, seemingly unable to believe the heavenliness of the moment in which they now stood. It was like a fanciful story like the ones she had heard about the Enuma Elish from far away Babylon. Should she ever be asked to relate the story of her family’s recent events and how they had come upon such grace and beauty, she would have to begin, herself, with the words, “Once upon a time…”
And deep inside her, in the place that was still enough for her to hear the beating of her own heart, she knew it was all because, once upon a time, God had come into the world, to show the many ways in which love can be made alive.
This sermon was delivered by The Rev. Edwin Chinery on March 13, 2016.