Encountering Gardeners: How do I treat the Body of Christ?

I can’t believe it, but it was almost fifteen years ago… Fifteen years; where does time go?  I was a seminarian living in the city on summer assignment.  Then as now, I loved taking long urban treks to clear my head, work out ideas, relax.  One such trek I was walking along P Street in Georgetown, not far from Rose Park.  It was hot, and -as if the heat wasn’t enough- the low angle of the afternoon sun contributed to an overall sense of fatigue.  The day itself was tired.  It wasn’t any surprise then to see a gardener packing up supplies outside an elegant townhouse.  Looking at the front yard, I’d guess he spent most of his day bagging last year’s wood chips and laying down a fresh layer.  The workman was clearly exhausted.  Long sleeves protecting his arms from the sun’s glare didn’t help preserve them from the heat.  Dust and splinters sat in suspended animation in the sweat on his face.  Even the heavy pants he wore to guard against the rough ground or the weed whacker’s detritus seemed to have surrendered, wilting on his frame.  Drawing closer to the scene, I noticed there was more happening than just end-of-the-day cleanup.  Another man, presumably the owner of the house, came into view.  He was livid.  In sharp contrast to the gardener, the homeowner was rigid with fury.  “Clean it up!  You call this finished?! I am NOT pleased.”  With these and other shrill critiques, the homeowner registered his displeasure.  I tried to look as casually as I could at the gardener’s work.  Some stray chips, a thin veneer of potting soil were strewn across the front walk; hardly a crisis… But there was no telling that to the owner… particularly since it became clear that the gardener didn’t speak English.  I was furious.  Who was this privileged prince to speak to another human being like this?  But for all my indignation, I did nothing.  I kept walking, much to my shame.

The story came back to mind yesterday (Palm Sunday) as we read the Passion narrative of St. Mark (14:1-15:47).  The first thing to strike me was a moment that usually gets passed over.

“When he was in Bethany reclining at table

in the house of Simon the leper,

a woman came with an alabaster jar of perfumed oil,

costly genuine spikenard.

She broke the alabaster jar and poured it on his head.

Elsewhere in the Gospel (Jn 12:1-11) this is the moment when Mary of Bethany anoints the feet of Jesus and dries them with her hair.  It got me thinking, “How do I treat the Body of Christ?”  In the Passion, there are two other examples of treating the Body of Christ.  There’s the soldiers/temple authorities, who treated it as an object, a thing, an inconvenience to be cleared away.  And then there’s Judas who kissed Jesus only to betray him.

We do – all of us – engage in all three ways of treating the Body of Christ.

When prayer is inconvenient, when we just don’t fee like genuflecting in Church, when there’s so many other things that need to get done rather than taking time for a personal encounter with someone…we turn the Body of Christ into an object.  He becomes something limited, controllable, something that can be easily set aside while we get about the truly important work of doing what we want.  We become like the Jews in the desert who made the golden calf: God will conform to this image, my image, of him and no more.  I see this in so many moments of my own life.  I also see it as a real possibility in wider Church life.  Anytime we want to put aside Jesus’ teachings to accommodate our soooo much more enlightened contemporary views/issues we risk objectifying Jesus.  We protest, “No, surely the Lord will understand.”  Only to hear Jesus reply, “Amen, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or the smallest part of a letter will pass from the law, until all things have taken place. (Mt 5:18)” …and suddenly, with the wicked, we may find ourselves saying (quite to our own surprise), “Let us beset the just one, because he is obnoxious to us; he sets himself against our doings, he reproaches us for transgressions of the law and charges us with violations of our training. (cf. Wis. 2:1, 12-22)”

We can be smarter than this…and more cunning.  Never doubt the genius of concupiscence.  We say, “No, no, no… I’m with Jesus.  I’m one of his followers.  I’m just trying to live out a more relevant version of his plan.”  We wear the outward appearance of disciples, even apostles, only to betray him to the Enemy… like Judas.  Many have written that Judas just wanted to prompt Jesus, to goad him into throwing off the sham of humility… to force him, as it were to bring about an earthly Kingdom.  So it made sense: betray him, have him arrested and he’ll call down the angels to defeat his/our enemies.  But Judas’ version of providence was not God’s.  As a priest I know that this happens anytime I hide behind… or better yet, “lean” on my collar.  I don’t think it’s often, but I know it happens. “I can cut a corner liturgically.  I can speed through my breviary.  I can delay confession.  It’s ok, I’m a priest.  I know what I’m doing.”  Did you notice that Jesus’ name didn’t enter into that consideration?  In families we sometimes see this when/if we invoke how “right” we are.  “If the poor would just work like the rest of us everything would be fine.”  Or… “I knew bad things would happen to that family.  They deserved it.  Look how they lived.” Or… “I could’ve seen that one coming a mile away, but she got what she deserved.”  We fake to one side and kiss the cheek of Jesus… a momentary nod to righteousness… only to leap toward our real goal: judgment, keeping our fellow man “in his place” based on our vision of things.  How odd that such a lack of empathy should come under the guise of an intimate kiss.

Then there’s Mary… who in a moment of seeming madness anoints the body of Jesus.  She loves him absolutely.  It must’ve looked crazy.  In John’s account, though she’s in her own home, she doesn’t even stop to get a towel.  So crazed is she with love of the Lord she must dry his fee with her own hair.  She doesn’t care about other people’s plans.  She doesn’t think of her own reputation.  She simply loves.  And when the world protests, “Why has there been this waste of perfumed oil?  It could have been sold for more than three hundred days’ wages

and the money given to the poor.” Jesus himself defends her… because the encounter is not about efficiency it’s about love… and love, real love, doesn’t exist on a scale of the efficient or the meritorious.  Love, in its purest form, is utterly gratuitous.  Such love is the only way of treating the Body of Christ with any sort of worth.  Do I treat Jesus like this?  I hope so… not only in the Blessed Sacrament, but it my fellow man: in my family, in strangers, and especially among the poor.  He desires all to be part of him one day in heaven, so all are worthy of that love.  “Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me. (Mt 25:40)”

In another week, we’ll hear about Mary Magdalene encountering a gardener.  When she realizes it’s Jesus she throws herself at his feet.  I can’t walk down P Street without thinking of that day fifteen years ago, of the miniature human drama I saw play out in front of me and of my silence, which made it not just a drama, but a tragedy.  Lord, grant that the next time I see you in a gardener… or in anyone… I may throw myself at your feet, in your defense, in love of you.  Grant that I may treat your body well.  Amen.