The Fragrance of Faith

The more you read this story, the more
it seems to glow, almost dizzying us
with sensory overload, not unlike the
fragrance of Mary’s poured perfume. This
stopover in Bethany becomes a point of rest
not only for Jesus on his danger-fraught
journey to Jerusalem, but also a place for
us to pause, ponder, and wonder.

In many ways this is a most familiar
story, since some version of it appears in
each gospel. Yet this one is different, lit
from within by its own unique intimacy
and surprising sensuality. Here Jesus has
been able to lay his burdens
down for awhile, to
give himself over to the
comfort and easy flow of
chatter and laughter with
good friends. Here in the
home of Lazarus, Jesus
is not surrounded by religious
leaders hoping to catch him in
the act of breaking a Sabbath law, or the
desperately needy seeking to draw healing
power from the hem of his garment.
Here he has been welcomed as the guest
of honor at a dinner party among friends
both women and men.

In the post dinner leisure of this soothing
domestic scene, Mary suddenly slips
into the foreground and brazenly unbinds
her hair in the presence of someone other
than a husband. Asking no one’s permission,
she proceeds to pour the most
expensive of perfumes onto Jesus’ body,
touching his feet with her hands and
her hair. Rose red in color, this rarest
of spices from the wilds of northern India
fills the room with its fragrance of gladiolas, intoxicating everyone present.
The quantity alone is staggering, valued
at a year’s salary for an ordinary worker.
Mary did not dab a bit of perfume
behind Jesus’ ears. She emptied out the
entire, pure pound, drenching him, the
whole room, and her own length of hair
with a spiced, heady, richness. How is
anyone to respond to this breathtaking
act of reckless devotion with its multiple
breaches of social mores?

Judas alone dares to speak–in
condemnation. But Jesus immediately
defends her, responding
“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.”
What are we to
make of that statement? One thing we
are not to make of this oft-quoted verse is
an excuse for neglecting the poor among
us. It is likely that Jesus was citing Deuteronomy
15:11. “Since there will never
cease to be some in need on the earth, I
therefore command you, ‘Open your hand
to the poor and needy neighbor in your
land.'” Jesus’ words here do not justify
the perpetuation of poverty but rather
serve to underscore the painful imminence
of his death, the precious transience
of his human life. Mary may have
intended to save her treasure of perfume
for the tender care of his dead body. But
she seemed overcome in the moment and
chose instead to touch and bless the ever-so-vulnerable body of the living, breathing
Jesus.

In breaking open the jar of perfume,
Mary releases reminders of God’s extravagant
love for all of creation. She breaks
through our numbness, revealing the unsettling
lengths to which God goes to
show us that love. She breaks open our
hearts to the cost and the joy of discipleship.
Mary’s gift reflects a love that
breaks open and drenches each one of
us, sticking to our skin, soaking into our
pores. It’s a wondrous love whose fragrance
lingers, a love we dare to share
with others–through a healing touch, a
bouquet of flowers, a gentle kiss, a passionate
embrace, a dinner party, an act of
solidarity with those who suffer.

Near the end of Mary Gordon’s first
novel, Final Payments, (298-299) Isabel,
the narrator, shouts to her nemesis, “The
poor you have always with you!” Isabel
then goes on to reflect,

And until that moment, climbing
the dark stairs in a rage to
my ugly room, it was a passage
I had not understood. It seemed
to justify to me the excesses of
centuries of fat, tyrannical bankers.
But now I understood. What
Christ was saying, what he meant,
was that the pleasure of that hair,
that ointment, must be taken. Because
the accidents of death would
deprive us soon enough. We must
not deprive ourselves, our loved
ones, of the luxury of our extravagant
affections. We must not try
to second-guess death by refusing
to love the ones we love in favor of
the anonymous poor.

And it came to me, fumbling
in the hallway for the light, that
I had been a thief. Like Judas, I
had wanted to hide gold, to count
it in the dead of night, to parlay
it into some safe and murderous
investment… So that never
again would I be found weeping,
like Mary, at the tombstone at the
break of dawn… I knew now I
must open the jar of ointment. I
must open my life.

Carol J. Cook is professor of pastoral care and counseling
at Louisville Theological Seminary in Louisville,
Kentucky.