With another holiday around the corner, my family is in full swing getting organized for An Event. If you’ve ever watched “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” or any other movie about families, you know what this looks like. You might even live it yourself. Yesterday I had 3 multi-step conversations about who was bringing what for Easter dinner. That sounds reasonable until you know that each of these people had also talked to other people and we were all just going around talking to each other, confirming with this person, talking to the original person. This is why conference calling was invented.
Here is my confession: I am sometimes drained by these conversations. (Again, if you have family, you know what I mean. Other members of my own family feel this way. I am not unique in my observations.) Family get-togethers can be hard for all the usual reasons. In my family they’re also hard because everyone gives too much.
I know, it sounds crazy on paper. You know what, though? It’s really true. Our gatherings have so much food that we cannot fit the leftovers in the freezer. The kids will end up with stockings, Easter baskets, trick-or-treat bags or whatever we’re celebrating from multiple grandparents, in-laws, friends, aunts and uncles. On Christmas, my daughter came home with enough stuff to start a small toy store and I wondered with no small amount of irritation where I was supposed to put it all.
Plus, you know, the waste.
In each conversation I’ve had about Easter dinner, I’ve cautioned restraint. I plan things with an eye for economy and efficiency. I am cheap and do not enjoy eating leftovers for days. In this respect, I’ve always identified with the disciples and their frustration over Mary’s extravagant “anointing” of Jesus with an expensive pitcher of perfumed oil. In Mark’s account, this act is even the tipping point for Judas, the event that propels him into betrayal.
“Some of those present were saying indignantly to one another, “Why this waste of perfume? It could have been sold for more than a year’s wages and the money given to the poor.” And they rebuked her harshly.” (Mark 14:4-5)
No joke. I would want to rebuke someone harshly too. I have, indeed, rebuked people harshly. “You didn’t have to do that.” “That’s too much.” “There’s always plenty of food.” “The kids will be happy just to play together.”
Sometimes the irrationality of generosity makes my head spin. A years worth of wages! Let’s donate to charity instead.
Even as I type this, I’m resistant to say what I’m about to say. I’m stuck on these ideas I have. I want to take this reflection in a direction that inspires us all (me included, because I need the inspiration) to go live perfectly austere lives where we give everything to the poor, save the earth and welcome the prisoner. I want to say that this expensive oil-bath was only ok because it was Jesus, and he was about to die. I really, truly do. Especially in the middle of Holy Week, which is all about somberness and reflection and the awareness of suffering that still exists in our world. This week in particular, as I participate in a beans and rice fast to remember that many people do not have enough to eat, as I plan to wake up in the middle of the night on Friday to take my turn at our prayer vigil, as I long for wholeness in our world, I want to craft a lecture about responsibility and stewardship. And many of you are reading this and thinking the same thing. You’re waiting for that, ready to close the browser window if I don’t say something–quick!–about making the world a better place by simplifying our lives.
But then this scripture is here, nestled right in the middle of Holy Week itself. It is a mystery to me. I want Jesus to say something other than, “Leave her alone.” I want him to appreciate Mary’s good heart but then gently guide her toward a better use of her money. I want him to say, “”whatever you do for the poor, you do for me.” Instead, he just sits here, asking us to ponder the miracle of this love, in all its materialistic, extravagant wasteful ways. He says, instead, “love those in your midst while you have them. Love them and love them lavishly.” After all, the ever-present reminder of Lent is that we will all die. From ashes you came and to ashes you will return. In other words, no one will be with us forever.
So for this week, just for this one week, I’m going to stick with the mystery of this story. I’m going to remember that out-of-control generosity is a blessing. When Easter comes and there are 20 pounds of potato salad, 10 desserts, a ham too big to fit on the table and the kids are covered in melted chocolate from their 7th Cadbury egg, I’m going to remember that the ability to give big is indeed a virtue. After all, these things–the too-many dishes, the planning, the excitement, the very wastefulness of it all–are a generosity born out of love. It is a beautiful thing.