Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. (The full readings for this morning can be found here).
In the name of the living God who is creating, redeeming, and sustaining us.
Way back a very long time ago, back in the early twelfth century, I was a boy in Odessa, Texas. And I can tell you my very first memory. I was riding in a golf cart with my father, and I couldn’t have been older than three or four years old. And the sun was coming up, and I smelled the scent of freshly cut grass, and I thought I must have gone to heaven.
And I remember going to my grandmother’s house for Thanksgiving, and the house was full of the most wonderful smells: ham, turkey, sweet potatoes, about 5 kinds of pie, and a pot of coffee on that old stove. Oh, I can still smell those thanksgivings.
Rudyard Kipling once wrote, “Smells are surer than sights or sounds to make your heartstrings crack.” And Hellen Keller once observed, “Smell is a potent wizard that transports you across thousands of miles and all the years you have lived.” Neuropsychologists tell us that smell is one of the most powerful gateways into our memories, in part because those two parts of the brain are very close to each other. Think about your first new car, or your favorite book, or your first trip to the library as a child, and you will almost automatically be drawn to the way they smelled. I think this is true in part because our sense of smell is so closely tied with the act of breathing—we don’t just detect a scent, we take it into our lungs and our bodies through our breath, which is another way of saying we take it into our spirit.
So, this morning, the Church offers us this wonderful story of a dinner party. It takes place in Bethany, which is bordered by the Mount of Olives, and only about two miles from the city of Jerusalem. And Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem; in fact, it’s his last trip to that city. And nothing very good is going to happen there.
The story takes place, as John tells us, “six days before the Passover.” My friend John is a careful writer and a fine poet. There aren’t any accidents or coincidences in John’s Gospel. So when he says “six days before the Passover,” I think he wants us to think back to the book of Genesis, to the six days of creation. Because these six days we’re approaching, the days we now call Holy Week, are God’s re-creation: God is making all things new again.
Now, this is sort of an odd dinner party, for a number of reasons. It takes place at the home of Mary and Martha and their brother Lazarus—yes, that Lazarus. And just one chapter before this, Jesus had raised Lazarus from the dead. And even Jesus, knowing all that he knew and was about to do, wept at that tomb. He wept over the death of his friend, and he wept over the grief he shared with his friend’s sisters. And when Jesus told them to roll away the stone, Martha voiced her concern: “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead for four days.” She was concerned about the stench of the grave, the odor of death and decay. But Jesus called Lazarus back from the grave and ordered them to unbind him from the strips of cloth in which he was entombed.
So, we have these two sisters at this dinner party, along with Lazarus (who was dead, but is alive) and Jesus (who is alive but will not be for much longer). And then, we have Judas. I’ll circle back around to him in a bit. And they are gathered at the table.
Then, one of the sisters (Mary) does something remarkable. She does something scandalous, something embarrassing, something shocking, something prodigal. (See, I told you last week we’d come back to that idea.) She takes a pound of perfume made from pure nard and anoints Jesus’ feet with it and then she wipes them with her hair. Let’s break this down a bit.
Nard was a very expensive perfume with a strong, distinctive aroma that clung to the skin. It is mentioned elsewhere in Scripture, in the Song of Solomon, which is also a sensuous and erotic, and sometimes scandalous book of the bible. The value of the oil with which she anoints Jesus’ feet is approximately a year’s wages. So, this is a lavish, sensuous act of devotion. And women of that time did not loosen their hair, let alone wash a man’s feet with it. But just as her brother Lazarus was unbound from his death shroud, Mary unbinds her hair and begins to wash Jesus’ feet. Washing someone’s feet—well, that was dirty work for the servants or slaves. In fact, women of that time did not touch a man at all unless they were married.
So, all the good, proper ladies over at the First Baptist Church of Jerusalem would have been clutching their pearls at this scene.
And then Judas asks a question, “Why didn’t she do some good with this money? Why not give it to the poor?” Now Judas is the consummate cynic, right? You know what a cynic is—a cynic is someone who knows what everything costs but doesn’t know what anything is worth. The stench of betrayal and stinginess and violence clings to him. And he cannot recognize the worth of this moment as this woman pours out her wealth, pours out her life and her dignity, upon this man Jesus.
And Jesus tells Judas, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial.” And I don’t want you to think that Jesus was unconcerned with the plight of the poor. The gospels tell us, rather, that he was profoundly concerned with the poor. But this is a special moment, a moment of lavish, unselfish tenderness, and I’m sure it strengthened Jesus for those horrifying days that lay ahead.
So, Mary had purchased this perfume for the time of Jesus’ death, but instead chooses to do so now. In a profound sense, she chooses life over death. This woman was willing to risk shame and embarrassment and ridicule— all for a reckless love. That kind of love always leads to the cross. Always. And maybe sometimes, every now and then, we might remember that loving God sometimes means a reckless refusal to consider the cost of love, and focus on what it’s worth. And maybe we might remember that God, as Isaiah tells us, is about to do a new thing.
Now, in just a few days we will celebrate Maundy Thursday, the day when Jesus washed his disciples’ feet. It’s the very next chapter of John’s gospel, and again, it’s very intimate and embarrassing. But, when we get there, I want you to remember, it was this woman Mary who showed Jesus how to do that, who showed him what love looks like.
The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. Breathe that in; breathe in her tender, reckless devotion and breathe in the life of Jesus. And then, exhale love.
James R. Dennis, O.P. © 2022