While he was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, as he sat at the table, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment of nard, and she broke open the jar and poured the ointment on his head.But some were there who said to one another in anger, ‘Why was the ointment wasted in this way? For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii, and the money given to the poor.’ And they scolded her. But Jesus said, ‘Let her alone; why do you trouble her? She has done something beautiful for me. For you always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish; but you will not always have me. She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial. Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.
Every year, when I was a seminary student, I spent the weekend before Thanksgiving packed in a rental car driving from New York City to Columbus, Georgia.
Just outside of Columbus Georgia is the US Military Installation, Fort Benning. And somewhere tucked in the middle of Fort Benning is a small institute called the School of the Americas.
The School of the Americas, which in 2001 was renamed “The Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation”, is a training center for foreign military leaders who have been selected to undergo training in the United States to help advance US interests oversees.
In the late 80’s, graduates of the School returned home to El Salvador after their training by the United States and led a brutal repression against the people of their home country. Death squads, led by graduates of the school, killed thousands of villagers in the country’s poor, rural North. And among the regime’s more brazen acts was their murder of 4 American nuns, 6 Roman Catholic Priests, and the Arch-Bishop of San Salvador, Oscar Romero.
Ever since then, every year, people of faith from all over the United States travel to the gates of the school each year to demand that it be closed.
The School of the Americas Protest has been going on for 25 years. And like any event that has run that long. There is some pretty expected infrastructure that has grown up around the whole thing.
Now there are food trucks parked around the area of the protest, a large stage and bandstand set up, vendors selling t-shirts and buttons.
It is like part protest, part block party.
There are artists who make these massive marionette puppets. There is music. There is poetry. There is dancing.
It is actually quite beautiful.
And I confess, I sometimes found myself sitting in the midst of all that, aware both of the awful violence that had brought this group to that place, and the rather festive and beautiful atmosphere of our protest and our witness.
And it felt a bit odd.
I confess that I sometimes wonder if the fuel we had burned, and the fast-food we had consumed, making the drive from New York to Georgia was worth having 4 more people standing there on the street outside the gates.
I wondered if it sometimes wasn’t all a bit more lavish than was appropriate. Given the gravity of everything.
I wondered if all the resources that went into organizing an event like this might have been better spent somewhere else…
It was shaping up to be the worst week of the disciples lives.
Judas was planning his betrayal.
And the shadow of the cross was growing longer by each passing moment.
Jesus and his friends were in Jerusalem. And Jesus was beginning to talk more and more about the end. He told them that he would suffer. And die. But their hearts wouldn’t let them believe it. Not really.
Still it was coming to an end.
And in that moment. Sitting around a meal, a woman came into the room with an alabaster jar of expensive perfumed oil. And she broke it. And poured the whole thing over Jesus head.
The disciples were incredulous.
This was Jesus. The man who had given his life to proclaiming liberty for the captive and justice for the oppressed.
He had spent his days telling the rich to sell everything and give the money to the poor.
He was practically an aesthetic, urging his followers to take nothing for their journey, to rely on the hospitality of others, to give even their shirt to who ever asked only for their coat.
She clearly didn’t know. And so they tried to explain it to her.
“Don’t you realize! We could have sold that jar, and given the money away to the poor. Right Jesus?”
The looked to him, this time certain of his approval. But once again, as he has done all along, Jesus surprises them with an unexpected answer.
“Leave her alone.”
“She has done something beautiful for me.”
“And wherever the gospel is proclaimed, people will remember it.”
Still, to the disciples, it felt a bit odd.
They wondered if great cost, and the lost opportunity to help the poor, was really worth it.
They wondered if it wasn’t all a bit more lavish than was appropriate. Given the gravity of everything.
They wondered if the resources might have been better spent somewhere else…
I confess that I have the same questions as the disciples. It all seems out of line with what Jesus was all about.
But two words of Jesus hang on my soul.
“Something beautiful.” She did something beautiful.
Back at Fort Benning, on Sunday morning, the whole crowd got into a long line. Each of one us carried a simple, white, wooden cross, with the name of someone who had been killed by a graduate of the School of the Americas. We walked as a leader sang the names.
and the crowd lifted their crosses and sang Presente, which means “they are here.”
Lucio Marquez, Presente.
Sometimes the chanter would add a chilling detail:
Christino Amaya Carlos, 9 years old. Presente.
Domingo Diaz, Presente.
They have been singing those names for 25 years.
And when we left that afternoon, not much had changed, but suddenly all the gasoline, and the fast food, the stage and the speakers, and the puppeteers and the blocked off streets, and the food trucks, didn’t seem like such a waste.
Because something beautiful had happened.
Suddenly having us all there, hugging old friends, dancing, staying up late in the hotel. It didn’t feel inappropriately lavish.
Even with the gravity of it all. It didn’t feel wrong to do something beautiful.
That is what I think Jesus was trying to say to them that night. That every so often, the right response to something awful, is something beautiful.
And that night, gathered together, when she broke the jar and poured it over her head. Covering him with fragrance as if she were preparing a body for burial, she did something beautiful.
She showed him the tender care that one would offer a body, while he was still breathing, as if to say, my love for you will not end, even if they kill you.
She poured abundantly, letting the oil crash over his head, and spill onto the floor, as if to say. My love for you is too great for any sort of measured restraint.
She did something beautiful. Something that they remembered. Something that we remember still.
Sometimes the only response to something awful. Is something beautiful.
I think of how many times I have wished that God would fix something.
How many times I have prayed that God would scrub away some guilt or take away some grief.
How many time I have begged God to heal someone who didn’t deserve to be sick
Or demanded God stop some awful thing that had no business happening in a world that God loved.
And I wonder. I wonder. How many of those times was the real answer to my prayer not God offering some solution, but rather surrounding me with the beauty of God’s presence and love.
I remember at a particularly hard moment in my life, a good friend cracked a bad joke. It seemed utterly inappropriate to the situation, but we laughed, probably harder than the joke deserved.
It was the kind of intuition only a close friend has. And it was the kind of laughter that feels like a healing balm. And I found myself saying, that familiar remark, “it feels good to laugh.”
Why did it feel good to laugh? It didn’t bring anyone back and It didn’t take the pain away.
I was just relieved to be reminded that beauty lived on. That laughter still lived in the world beyond my loss.
I wonder if that was the answer to my prayer. God didn’t fix anything. But God, through my friend’s often clunky sense of humor, did something beautiful.
And with that small, simple, bit of beauty before us, it suddenly seemed possible to go on.
Whenever the School of the Americas finally closes, it will be in no small part because of the power of beauty, that has given that weary movement hope for the better part of 30 years.
And we just might be sitting here today because a week before Jesus died, a woman poured expensive perfume over his head. And it was so beautiful, that wherever the Good News was proclaimed people remembered her.
And they remembered that beautiful thing that she did for him.
And it suddenly seemed like not even death could end of God’s love.