This is part of a syndicated series for Lent 2019 with Harvard’s Christian Journal Ichthus. Visit Ichthus at http://www.harvardichthus.org
Bryce McDonald ’21 is a Classics concentrator in Leverett House.
“When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream. Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy; then it was said among the nations, ‘The Lord has done great things for them.’ The Lord has done great things for us, and we rejoiced.”
Whether we are aware of it or not, we naturally discern between proper and improper ways of dreaming. When Martin Luther King asks us to buy into his dream for humankind, we enthusiastically tell him to take the lead—he seems to give us a direct path to achieve it, primarily through various forms of political activism. His dreaming is meaningful because it changes how he lives in the present. On the other hand, we often use the term “dreamer” derogatorily for someone who is air-headed and unrealistic, as in John Lennon’s line in the song “Imagine,” “You may say I’m a dreamer // But I’m not the only one.”
Among the dreams we often encounter in our society’s collective conscious, the American Dream looms large. The idea that anyone can attain material distinction through his own great effort seems to be a trope ingrained in the historic essence of the United States. Yet, many people today have ceased to be awestruck by the magnificence of this dream. Perhaps the reason why can be found in the Scripture readings for today.
John 12 tells the story of Mary, whose brother Lazarus had been raised from the dead by Jesus. In this episode, she is seen pouring out an entire jar of very costly perfume straight onto the feet of Jesus. She did this knowing that Jesus would soon go up voluntarily to Jerusalem and suffer a horrific death at the hand of the Jewish leaders.
From a purely economic point of view, this was pure delusion. Judas (Jesus’ friend who would later betray him to be killed) represents this perspective clearly (verse 5), complaining at the impracticality of this act, though actually disappointed that he was not able to embezzle a portion of it for himself.
For Mary, this perfume was an enormous sacrifice, almost a whole year’s wages. From a material, traditionally American perspective, her devotion makes no sense. However, when he brought her brother Lazarus back from death, Jesus had given Mary a small taste of what was to come at the end of time. Accordingly, she was immediately able to reorient her priorities to anticipate that spiritual reality. This is simply a manifestation of her renewed ideals.
Through the story of the Gospel, the dream referred to in Psalm 126 has become reality, as we have been adopted as sons and daughters into the family of God. The Gospel is found in microcosm in the story of Lazarus: once, we were dead, and have been raised to life through the loving work of Christ. How then do we successfully make that dream more real for ourselves, as Mary did so naturally?
First, we must snap ourselves out of another dream, the dream of self-reliance. We go about our lives in a dream, a haze of ambition, chasing down priorities which align exactly with those of the rest of our culture. In its undiluted form, this kind of dream is a delusion of autonomy, and succeeds in shutting God out of our lives.
Mary rightly behaved towards Jesus as though she were in a dream. She saw how the gleam of material possessions pales in comparison with the infinite value of our Savior’s love. We must hope to imitate her as the apostle Paul did, “forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead” (Philippians 3:13). This is the sort of dream, the vision of the afterlife, which makes us more invested in the current day. Unlike the Gatsby-like idealist, the Christian ought to be more concerned about this world, about aligning our desires and actions with those of Christ, not less. Our “body of sin” must be cleansed, not left behind, by submitting it to the will of God, one bit at a time, minute by minute. (Romans 6:6) For, under Christ’s dominion, each facet of creation is sacred, imbued with value and goodness by the love of God.
This kind of dreaming and forward-looking lifestyle explains why materialists cannot begin to understand the “irrational” hope of the Christian, and the “mechanics” of a sacrificial life. Unlike the American Dream, Christianity rests its hope not on social, but spiritual mobility, holding that because of Christ’s incredible sacrifice for us, through faith we are destined for everlasting life with Him, “not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:9).