PDA: A Look into the Worship Habit of Mary of Bethany

We’re going to talk about PDA: public displays of affection. Now, not all acts of worship are public, but Mary’s is, so that’s the kind we’re obliged to discuss as we look at the life of Mary of Bethany. We don’t like PDA. As white Americans many of us have deep-seated Victorian and/or German roots and we don’t like being emotional in public. Well, we don’t like being emotional at all if we can help it.  We see emotion as a sign of weakness. And public displays of emotion make us uncomfortable.

One thing I know about our Lord Jesus: he is ever so gently and consistently pushing us out of our comfort zones, pushing us out of ourselves. Why? Because whatever worship is, it isn’t about us. And if we’ll let him guide us into living outside of ourselves, in exchange for our fleshly discomfort Jesus gives comfort to the soul as we rest in him instead of our preferences. We’ll come back to that thought in a minute. Let’s talk about Mary’s PDA.

Mary’s first recorded act of PDA occurs in a famous scene where many modern books and biblestudies tisk-tisk Mary’s sister Martha for being hospitable, and perhaps a bit of a bossy older sister. But nevermind that. Sitting at the Lord’s feet is public worship, is slightly scandalous, is perhaps what enabled Mary to understand Jesus’ predictions of his death, and is partly what motivated her to exhibit her next recorded public display of affection: breaking the very expensive jar of perfume to anoint her Lord’s head and feet.

Mary’s act of extravagance is a challenge to me. I am a rather private person, which isn’t bad per se; it has its strengths and weaknesses just like any personality trait. But, I also care too much about what other people think of me, which makes people big and God small.

Mary’s story is inspiring to me because Mary didn’t care what others thought of her. She didn’t care what others thought because she knew what Jesus thought; Jesus thought very highly of Mary. He allowed and encouraged her to sit as his feet as a student to a mentor, a privilege only given to men. When Lazarus died, he called for her specifically and he wept when she did. Jesus changed her whole world. So she didn’t care that she wasn’t supposed to sit at the feet of Jesus like the men. She didn’t care that she wasn’t supposed to let her hair down in public and touch a man who wasn’t her husband. She didn’t care that she wasn’t supposed to “waste” expensive perfume.

The account in Mark informs us that Judas wasn’t the only one who was put off by Mary’s extravagance. The others in the room were also made uncomfortable by Mary’s worship. She was breaking out from what they were used to—this wasn’t the way they grew up. But this is what Jesus does. He scatters our shadowy social norms, beckoning us into the light of abundant life.

Mary answered that call, and she communicated so much without saying a single word. By sitting at Jesus’ feet, she was communicating attention, devotion, submission, and respect. By breaking the vase, which was quite possibly the nard she’d been saving her whole life for her wedding day and the most expensive item in her possession, Mary was communicating that she loved Jesus more than material possessions, that she trusted Jesus for security more than a dowry, and she was communicating that she understood her identity as a citizen of Jesus’ Kingdom and not of this world. Finally, by kneeling at Jesus’ feet to anoint them and wipe them with her hair, Mary was communicating humility, servitude, and ultimately, love.

Did you know we are communicating messages every second of our waking lives? When we communicate a message, only about 10-30 percent of that message is communicated verbally. If we take the average, that means 80% of the message is communicated nonverbally.

We have this idea that physical expression in worship isn’t important or necessary—and we’re afraid of it. However, at least 80% of what we’re communicating in worship—whether it be in prayer or in singing together or in engaging with the sermon—80% of what we’re communicating to other people about who our God is and what our relationship with him is like is communicated non-verbally. Please understand I’m not saying posture is everything; only that it isn’t nothing.

Consider this quote from CS Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters. If you aren’t familiar with this work, Lewis is writing from the perspective of an evil spirit about how to keep Christians from being effective in God’s Kingdom. Screwtape is an experienced devil who is writing letters of advice to his inexperienced nephew. Let’s listen in on Screwtape’s advice about how to keep a person from effectual prayer:

One of their poets, Coleridge, has recorded that he did not pray ‘with moving lips and bended knees’ but merely ‘composed his spirit to love’ and indulged ‘a sense of supplication’. That is exactly the sort of prayer we want; and since it bears a superficial resemblance to the prayer of silence as practiced by those who are very far advanced in the Enemy’s service, clever and lazy patients can be taken in by it for quite a long time. At the very least, they can be persuaded that the bodily position makes no difference to their prayers; for they constantly forget, what you must always remember, that they are animals and that whatever their bodies do affects their souls. (16)

“Whatever their bodies do affects their souls.” Sometimes it’s easier for us to make the connection between the bad things we do with our bodies and the negative affect those actions have on our souls than it is for us to realize the good connection. I think part of the reason for that disconnect lies in that sticky thing we can’t seem to fully shake off the Gospel called dualism. You know, bodies=bad; or at least less important.

We do this all the time. We compartmentalize our lives into two categories: physical and spiritual, and we think that the physical is less important than the spiritual. For example, sometimes we secretly think becoming a pastor or a missionary is more spiritual than becoming a CEO or a nurse or a police officer.

What Lewis is saying—and what I’m trying to say —is that the physical and the spiritual are intricately woven together; our bodies and our emotions and our intellect are all woven together: we’re whole persons, not compartmentalized, fragmented persons… or at least, that’s not the way it’s supposed to be.

What I do with my body, the good and the bad, affects my spirit, affects my soul. And not only that, what I do with my body affects the Body. It affects you. Now here’s where I get to the point. We’re talking about PDA: corporate worship. What I do with my body in corporate worship affects you and vice versa. When we come together in worship, we aren’t merely a collection of individuals who happen to be in the same room. We’re ONE Body! Sure we’re different members of one Body, but we can’t be members without first being a body. It’s the oneness that comes first; it’s the oneness that’s the larger, underlying truth.

I love Ephesians. And the first part of chapter four is one of my favorite parts: “There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to one hope when you were called—one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (4:4-6)!

Just because we’re one united body, that doesn’t mean we all have to do exactly the same thing all the time. Now, I like a bit of liturgy; I think it can be helpful; it’s like working out on a team or with friends or in a class, instead of having to motivate myself to exercise. I think there’s a place for doing the same thing all together at the same time, but we don’t all have to raise our hands at the same time every time. Nonetheless, if there is to be freedom, we do have to be of one spirit. We don’t have to have the same level of comfort with PDA; but we do have to be of one spirit. Which means, at the very least, the older generation must stop judging my generation for our emotional expression saying it isn’t real because it has to fueled by emotional sentiment. And people my age must stop judging the older generation for their lack of expression saying it isn’t sincere worship because there’s no feeling.

“As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity through the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:1-3). This verse tells us it is hard work. But we can do it! If we will follow God’s example and try to meet one another where the other is, we’ll meet somewhere in the middle; and that’s a good place to be.

Mary’s worship was extravagant; it was radical, and I appreciate the fact that for some of you what I’m talking about feels radical—which I believe not only to be legitimate, but good, because while part of me wishes for myself only a comfortable life, deep down I crave that radical communal life of Jesus’, as by creational and redemptive grace we all do. Let us therefore be ever growing together in Christ toward becoming the holistic worshipers we were created and redeemed to be.

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One Response to PDA: A Look into the Worship Habit of Mary of Bethany

  1. susan says:

    you constantly amze me with your depth and insight and vulnerbility…i think you’re more like mary than you think…much love, mom

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