In Advent we remember the story of a baby, born to a young woman in mysterious and unusual circumstances. A young woman in a man’s world, carrying something divine, but also carrying the shame and awkwardness that came along with it. A young woman who had to give birth away from home and who, along with her new husband and little baby had to escape as refugees because of an ego-driven king who saw her child as a threat and wanted him dead.
And beyond the surface plotline of the story, Christians also speak of this idea of incarnation: that somehow God was present to us in this human Jesus. The claim of the early followers of Jesus was that he was in fact the embodiment and representation to us of who God is and what God is like. The Apostle Paul talks about the idea that “in Christ all of the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form.” Elsewhere, the writer of the book of Hebrews says that Jesus is “the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being.’
A baby, born to a shamed unwed teenage girl who was an oppressed ethnic minority on the underside of a powerful empire… the radiance of God’s glory.
And so as much as this is about divinity, it is also about humanity. For the idea of incarnation, of God becoming flesh and blood in the life of Jesus, is surely about the affirmation of humanness itself.And as much as the story of Jesus is about Jesus, it is also about the people he encounters. It is about the way he brings dignity, meaning, purpose and affirmation into the lives of those for whom life has stripped those things away.
When one of the Pharisees invited Jesus to have dinner with him, he went to the Pharisee’s house and reclined at the table. A woman in that town who lived a sinful life learned that Jesus was eating at the Pharisee’s house, so she came there with an alabaster jar of perfume. As she stood behind him at his feet weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them and poured perfume on them.
When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is—that she is a sinner.” Jesus answered him, “Simon, I have something to tell you.”
“Tell me, teacher,” he said.
“Two people owed money to a certain moneylender. One owed him five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he forgave the debts of both. Now which of them will love him more?” Simon replied, “I suppose the one who had the bigger debt forgiven.”
“You have judged correctly,” Jesus said.
Then he turned toward the woman and said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet. Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—as her great love has shown. But whoever has been forgiven little loves little.”
Then Jesus said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” The other guests began to say among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?” Jesus said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”
Jesus is invited to dine at the house of a Pharisee; on the face of it, an act of hospitality toward this controversial prophet and healer. The men are reclining at the table, and a “sinful” woman invites herself to the party. It is probably fair to assume that her sinfulness was well known to the community, and she takes perfume (that she has probably bought with money earned from her “sinful” life) and washes Jesus’ feet, kisses them and wipes them with her hair. A demonstrative moment that is not expected, not conventional, and is not following the ‘rules’.
The response from others in the room is disdain and judgement.
But Jesus does not to react to this woman’s outburst by silencing her, nor by rolling his eyes. Instead, he flips the situation around. It is the marginalised woman who Jesus now declares to be the one who has shown true hospitality. Jesus encounters someone who has had their humanity damaged by the actions and judgements of others, and affirms and restores her. He opposes the social and moral judgements being made by others in the room, sees her and offers her peace.
A man, born in shame and danger to an unwed mother, now encounters a woman who is also ostracised, pushed to the edges, shunned, labelled, judged, and offers her peace and affirmation. And offers her the hero’s role in a story that would be retold for thousands of years.
Take a moment to think about who you might identify with in the story, and then consider this benediction:
If you find yourself identifying as one of those who was looking on in judgement, then may you find a new awakening to the grace of God, for those you encounter in your day to day lives, and also for yourself. May you realise that God is present in unlikely places and among unlikely people, and that as you open yourself to them, you will find something new.
If you find yourself identifying with the women who has been labelled, judged and shunned, then may you find peace. May you feel the acceptance and love not only of God, but of a community. May you trust that the way God tells the story very well might have you as the hero of the tale, even if you don’t feel like it.
And if you find yourself identifying with Jesus, with the one who desires to offer peace and goodwill, then may you find yourself filled with courage. The courage to stand up in the midst of an overwhelming tide of people who say “this is not how we do things here” or “this person is not accepted” and instead offer grace and affirmation. And may you find the joy that can come when we see the radiance of God’s glory in the eyes of another.