The Jackals and the Ostriches

Isaiah 43:16-21, John 12:1-8


That is the word that comes to mind when I hear the story of Mary of Bethany.

While she was eating with Martha, Lazarus and Jesus, Mary got up, gently took a jar of perfume, and sat down next to Jesus to anoint his feet.

She slowly lowered herself to the floor, made of hard packed dirt.  As her face came close to the ground, its earthy smell filled her nostrils.

Dirt. Humus. Human.  From earth we were lovingly made, to earth we will lovingly be returned.

Mary reflected with awe on God’s creative power as she let down her hair.

She knew she wasn’t supposed to.  You know it wasn’t proper to have your hair lose in those days.  If you were a female, you were supposed to keep it neat and swept back.

But her brother Lazarus had been dead in a tomb and now he was a live again, he had been lost and now he was found.

How do you celebrate something like that?

Mary wasn’t quite sure.  Something like that had never happened to her before.

She knew that people expected her to keep her distance, to be detached, to just say a polite, “Thank you, Jesus that was very kind of you to bring my brother back to life.”

Yet, what she felt within her was more exuberant than a polite thank you, which is why she had let her hair down to wash Jesus’ feet.

She knew it would probably make people talk.

After all there were rules about how women were supposed to behave.

But what if, what if Jesus saw her as humus, as human, as a creation of God who came from earth and would return to earth.  What if Jesus saw her simply as the beloved of God?

That’s the thing about Jesus – he was always going around treating people like equals whereas others were always trying to establish hierarchies.

It always made the Pharisees really mad.

“You shouldn’t be accepting dinner invitations from those tax collectors,” they would say, “They are collecting money for the Roman Empire and ripping us off!”

Jesus also called women as disciples, women like Mary of Magdala, Joanna and Suzanna.

Jesus had this way of reminding people that they were all equal in the eyes of God.

Jew. Gentile. Samaritan. Leper. People of every race, age, gender identity, marital standing, physical or mental ability and economic status.

It inspired awe in Mary, and she thought to herself: sometimes you just have to show a thing its beauty; you have to celebrate what it is in front you, soak in the joy, radiate with gratitude.

And so she had let down her hair and poured the perfume on Jesus’ feet.  It had cost a year’s wages.  Maybe some people would call her the prodigal daughter for her wastefulness and extravagance.  And yet, joy flooded through her. In abundance. Like the perfume that spilled generously over Jesus’ feet onto the dirt-packed floor.

Perhaps she too had been lost, Mary thought absent-mindedly as she worked the perfume into Jesus’ calloused feet with her hair and hands.

Sand still clung to Jesus’ feet.

As Mary felt its grittiness under her fingers, she thought of the nearby desert, dry and desiccated.  Her life had felt like that sometimes, like all the water had been sucked out of it, like nothing could ever grow in such a barren wasteland.

Mary wondered if the Israelites had felt the same way when they had wandered the desert for forty years before arriving at the Promised Land. Had they felt exactly like the dry sand that they had wandered on?

Then, after living in the Promised Land for many years, the Israelites had been exiled and forced to live in Babylonia.  When they were allowed to return home, they had journeyed over the desert again.

Mary wondered if, as they wandered back over the desolate land, they asked:

“How can new life possibly sprout up here? Or in our lives?”

Yet, as Mary pondered the plight of the Israelites, she also remembered the words that God had spoken to the exiles on their journey home:

“Look! I am doing a new thing! Now it springs forth – can’t you see it? I’m making a way in the wilderness and setting rivers to flow in the desert.  Wild beasts will honor me – the jackals and the ostriches – for I will put water in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.”

Rivers flowing in the desert. Life in the midst of a wasteland.

How could something like that even be possible?

It’s a striking question in face of the increasing desertification on the face of the earth.  The United Nation estimates that we have lost one fifth of farmland worldwide to desertification.  In the process of desertification, vegetation and soil life become depleted, the land dries up, the ground water level keeps sinking, the erosion of fertile soil intensifies until all humus is gone and only sand remains.[1]

In such dry conditions, how can we ever find new life?

This is a question Sepp Holzer, an Austrian farmer in the Alps, has wrestled with first-hand.  In the book Desert or Paradise, Holzer recounts the story of how, in the midst of struggling forests, landslides and harsh climate, he created a farm in the Alps that was able to grow cherries, potatoes and even kiwis at time when many surrounding farmers were giving up.

The key, he said, was water and biodiversity.  He built a series of retention containers to hold the rainwater and keep it from spilling down the mountains and planted a diverse flora that worked together in community to support each other in the harsh Alpine climate.

Paradise is possible, Holzer says, even in places that seem like a wasteland.

Holzer’s words were good news for the people at the Peace Research Centre in southern Portugal, who hired him as a consultant.  Their landscape was increasing turning to desert; the land was as dry as the dust that the Israelites had wandered across.

And yet, upon examining the Research Center, Holzer discovered that the land had everything it needed to create a lush, green landscape.  It didn’t need more water … it needed to capture the rainwater that it already had.

So Holzer built a series of lakes, and lo and behold, new life sprung forth, water was found in the wilderness and a river flowed through the desert.

Holzer teaches us the value of dwelling close to the earth during our wilderness journey, so close that we see first-hand its abundance, so close that we can smell its earthy aroma. Like Mary.

Sepp Holzer and Mary of Bethany both teach us the value of the beatitude: “Blessed are the humble for they are close to the sacred earth.”[2]

Blessed are the humble.  Blessed are they who bend down to the ground and smell the dirt teeming with life. For they remember that they are human, that they are from humus and that the humus itself is sacred and holy and beautiful.  The humus itself will give us what we need to survive.  It will give us our daily bread and water itself will spring forth from the desert, because it is already there, we just need to listen to the earth.

The water itself is already there. Can you hear it? It is running and flowing, leaping and gurgling over the rocks and sand into our parched being, bringing rich nutrients into the soil of our souls.

Greenery sprouts up all around us and even the jackals and the ostriches, filled with joy, give praise to God for the beauty of Creation.

“Praise be to God, the Almighty, the Source of Creation!
O … praise now, the Source of thy health and salvation!
Cast off thy fear, and to Love’s shelter draw near;
Join all the Earth’s adoration.” [3]

Now, some may argue that there really are places where greenery cannot sprout up. Like garbage heaps.  Surely new life cannot come out of our garbage heaps.  Surely at least our rubbish we can write off as useless, as a place where rebirth and regeneration are no longer possible.

And yet, even there, Holzer has taught people who are forced to live near garbage heaps to gather the clothes, the cardboard and the wood into a pile, cover them with soil and to plant a garden.  The garbage decomposes, releasing its nutrients, caring for the next generation of plants and a paradise of plants is brought forth in the wasteland, providing daily food for the people who tend them.

A paradise springs forth in a wasteland.

This was the reality that Mary’s mind lingered on as she rubbed in the last of the perfume on Jesus’ feet.

She recalled how, once the exiled Israelites had returned to the Promised Land, they had planted and tended the earth and discovered that, indeed, greenery could sprout up among the ruins and brambles.

A paradise springs forth in a wasteland.

As the aroma of the perfume mingled with that of the earthy floor, Mary was awakened to the pregnant promise that her life held.  Suddenly she saw that she was not dry desert sand but rather fertile humus teeming with life.  Even the rubbish in her life held potential and provided nutrients for something beautiful to sprout up.  Something worth celebrating.

With the humus and the rivers, with the wilderness and the ostriches and the jackals, Mary joined in praising God, in shouting, in letting her hair down, in having a full out dance party, because she had been lost and now she was found.  She had been dead and now she had new life.  She had been parched and she had discovered, at last, the vibrant water that had been within her all along.

“Praise be to God, the Almighty, the Source of Creation!
O my soul praise now, the Source of thy health and salvation!
Cast off thy fear, and to Love’s shelter draw near;
Join all the Earth’s adoration.” 


[1] This definition of desertification comes from Desert of Paradise  by Sepp Holzer.

[2] The wording of this beatitude comes from John Philip Newell in Praying with the Earth.

[3] These lyrics come from “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty”, written by Joachim Neander, translated by Catherine Winkworth, altered by Tallessyn Grenfell-Lee.

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