A Lingering Fragrance

“Christ in the House of Simon”
Dieric Bouts, 1440’s
(Staatliche Museen, Berlin)

Lectionary Text:  John 12: 1-11
Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. 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. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” When the great crowd of the Jews learned that he was there, they came not only because of Jesus but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. So the chief priests planned to put Lazarus to death as well, since it was on account of him that many of the Jews were deserting and were believing in Jesus.

You can imagine these friends around this table filled with wonderful-smelling food, telling stories and laughing together.  And then Mary gets up and picks up this beautiful jar full of expensive perfume.  She pours it lavishly on Jesus’ feet not caring how much she used.  The smell of the perfume fills the room.  And Mary kneels all the way down and wipes Jesus’ feet with her hair as it spills onto the floor.  It is not the anointing itself that is all that unusual.  After all, it was normal to anoint kings at their coronation and priests at their ordination.  And, of course, anointing was a way to prepare a body after death.  Mary was anointing Jesus her Lord and King and preparing him for what would come next.  But those there missed that point.  They were much more worried about this expensive oil that was now soaking into the stone floor.

Now you have to understand that women were not supposed to put themselves in a position of being the center of attention. And they were not supposed to touch a man that was not their husband. And for a woman to let her hair down in public would have been considered a disgrace. So as those present saw her, Mary was making a total spectacle of herself. And then she wastes all this perfumed oil. Judas surmised that it could be sold for three hundred denairii. If that were true, that would have been close to one year’s wages for a laborer. But Albert Schweitzer said that “if you own something you cannot give away, then you don’t own it, it owns you.”

Massada, Israel
Taken February, 2010

As for Mary, none of that mattered anyway. The love that she felt for Jesus just made all those things meaningless. She was truly overcome with love for Christ. And she wanted him to know that she got it. And so this act of extravagant generosity, this act of deep, incredible love, the kind of love that Jesus gave, becomes a sort of living embalming, an act that showed Jesus that Mary was with him on his way to the cross.  Think about some of the language—Mary took, poured, and wiped. We will hear those same words this Thursday in the account of Jesus’ last meal: Jesus took the bread, poured out the wine, and wiped the feet of the disciples, and through these common gestures and such common touch, Jesus shows us what true love is. And as Mary takes, and pours, and wipes, she shows that same love toward Christ, and this small crowded house in Bethany becomes a cathedral and this simple meal becomes a Eucharist. Through her touch, through her love, the ordinary becomes sacred. Mary enters Jesus’ life and he becomes part of her. And God enters that very room and Mary feels the presence of the Divine.  Her life becomes a sacrament that shows Jesus’ love to the world. And the whole world is now forever filled with the fragrance of that perfume.

Where do we find ourselves in this story? Jesus has begun the walk to the cross. Are we standing on the sidelines watching the events unfold as if it is some sort of prepared video stream? Are we holding back those things we have because the cost is just too great? Or are we waiting to see what the person next to us will do? I’m afraid that I’m probably not standing in the right place on the stage of this story.  I’m afraid I probably AM too worried about the cost, about the loss, about what people will think.  But each of us is called to take, to pour, and to wipe. Each of us is called to become a living sacrament of Christ’s love. Each of us is called to walk with Christ to the cross. Each of us is called to embody that close a relationship with the living Christ that we will be positively overcome with our love for God. Each of us is called to see, to hear, to smell, to touch, to feel, to laugh, and to love with the depth and passion of Christ.  Oh, I want to be one that spills out all that I am and all that I have with utterly reckless abandon. Because, you see, that is the only way to experience that lingering fragrance that is still in the air.

So we follow our Lord hoping against hope
That soon the road might veer
And get us back to a place we know
A place we do not fear.
And then the fragrance of spilled perfume
Begins to cloud our head
The woman takes and pours and wipes our Lord
And we wonder what we would’ve said.

So, on this holiest of walks, ask yourself what it is that you’re being asked to pour out for Christ and then do it joyfully until it spills onto and covers the floor of the world…

Grace and Peace in this holiest of weeks,


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