The gospel narrative for Passion Sunday, of Mary anointing Jesus, is a story of the crossing of boundaries. The rules of thrift and the responsible use of resources are cast aside, as what may have been the most valuable item in the house is dissipated in a grand gesture and few moments of fragrance. A routine act of hospitality is elevated from a mundane kindness to an eye-catching drama. There is a physical intimacy in public between a man and an unrelated woman, as Mary bends to wipe Jesus’s feet with her hair.
Of course, if it had happened last Friday it could be a ‘red nose’ stunt, pouring a bottle of perfume over a dinner guest. I’m sure you could get sponsorship, upload the video, send it to wing its way through the social media.
Comic Relief, and similar undertakings, tame the unusual and domesticate the extravagant gesture. Boundaries are transgressed, but only with careful planning; generosity is harnessed to a date, and eccentricity given its place on the calendar. All is made safe, if occasionally embarrassing, and care for those in need is slotted neatly into a consumerist culture, where we buy our red noses at the tills of major supermarkets.
Even with that domestication, however, such events retain an association between giving and the breaching of what are normally considered the limits of acceptable behaviour. Like the licensed fools of previous centuries, participants act out a defiance of the rules by which we live so much of the time, the rules of the market, of contract and commerce, of the exchange of goods and services. For this action I should receive this payment: with this money I can purchase these things. Sit in a bath of baked beans, and someone will give you money because he is mildly entertained by your humiliation (but not as much as if he paid the same to see a really good comic), or she feels an obligation to support a friend or workmate; not because there is an identifiable value or outcome to your action.
By attribution, at least, it was Ignatius Loyola who prayed for the generosity of spirit which gives without counting the cost and acts without expecting reward; I doubt if Red Nose Day is part of the cultural heritage of Francis I, the first Jesuit pope, but there is a pleasing coincidence in his election as this country engages in one of its periodic exercises in communal altruism.
Flagrant generosity, without palpable reward, is the generosity of God, which breaks all the rules about what is deserved or earned or due. In God’s giving of God’s very self in the passion, the rules of parenthood are breached; the primary loving relationship, as experienced and valued in most human lives, is ruptured.
Yet this Passion Sunday story, of course, is one of the few in which Jesus is the recipient, not the giver. He accepts it all, the perfume, the careful wiping of his feet, the symbolic preparation. Accepting the gift, he values the giver, and accepts the identity she gives him.
So much of our tradition emphasises our inadequacy, and disables us from that acceptance. May we learn to accept that lavish gift of God’s love, which breaks the rules of the market place and pre-empts any question of deserving, and allow ourselves also to accept the identity offered us, as God’s beloved children.
Canon Jane Freeman is Team Rector of Wickford and Runwell in the diocese of Chelmsford.