Lovely Beyond Any Singing of It Jn 12:1-8
According to the journal Science, human beings can detect at least a trillion scents! (Of course, dogs can detect even more). It’s common that the memories we associate with smells are among our most vivid and enduring. Mary, Martha, and Lazarus of Bethany, the family in today’s Gospel reading from John, probably never forgot the smell of a body that had been dead for four days. While that might sound unappealing, to say the least, it was this smell they’d always associate with God’s love. Can you even imagine the family’s surprise and delight, when, in the midst of the stink of death, Lazarus is returned to life?
In today’s reading from John, Jesus has come back to Bethany, and is being honored with a dinner given by Lazarus’ grateful family. I like to imagine the guests commenting on the rich scent of Martha’s lamb stew, or the crisp, tangy fragrance of fresh apricots. Don’t you wish you could eavesdrop on that dinner table conversation? Was a still-slightly-green Lazarus fielding questions about what it felt like to be dead? Was Martha recounting that before Jesus raised her brother, she had already proclaimed that Jesus to be the resurrection and the life? Was everyone talking about how it felt to help unbind Lazarus from his grave clothes? The room would have been pulsing with celebration, with remembrances of how Jesus—with tears of love—brought streams of new life into their desert of grief, living water into their wilderness.
Suddenly, Mary introduces a new smell into the room. Without a word she changes the whole atmosphere of the party.
She washes Jesus’ feet, and dries them with her hair. While we might think her behavior is kind of weird, in Mary’s context, it was absolutely outrageous! In those days, remember, women did not even approach men who were not relatives, much less touch them. Furthermore, a woman who wasn’t a prostitute never let down her hair in front of a man. This is probably why in Mark and Luke’s telling of this story, the woman who anoints Jesus isn’t respectable Mary of Bethany, but an unnamed sinner. You know, the kind of woman who might let down her hair and behave shamelessly. (Though to be clear, this is not an anointing—that would have involved pouring the perfume over Jesus’ head. This was something even more bizarre).
Besides the fact that she was a woman, Mary’s behavior was scandalous in other ways too. Remember that, at the time, everyone walked everywhere, and—as I mentioned last week—not everyone had sandals. It was common for a host to offer water for guests to wash their feet in when they arrived. Usually people washed their own feet, though in some cases, a slave might do it for them; a free person never washed anyone else’s feet. Mary’s action is a sign of feeling so indebted to Jesus that she willingly crosses all kinds of cultural boundaries. And he allows her to do so. Though John doesn’t mention it, I imagine the dinner party has become awkward and uncomfortable at this point.
Because, above all the other weirdness, Mary isn’t washing Jesus’ feet with water. She’s using expensive perfume. Really expensive perfume. Judas estimates it’s worth 300 denarii, which would have been about a year’s wages (more or less $50,000 today). It seems almost criminal, this wasting of resources that could have been spent on the poor. Probably others were thinking it, too, but only Judas has the guts to say so. And, given what we know of Jesus and his affinity for the poor, we may expect him to agree.
But this time. Jesus does not speak out about generosity and justice, though Scriptures are filled with other instances when he does. Instead, on this occasion he chastises Judas for being stingy. Not stingy with money, but stingy with his love. John, the author of this story, claims that Judas was a thief and was probably concerned about not benefitting from Mary’s contribution. Whether or not that was true, Jesus raises a different concern. Because you are following me, he says, you will always be with poor people, always called to pay attention to them and embrace them, but pay attention to what Mary is saying right now. Verbally, Mary offers no testimony on her own behalf. Mary of Bethany is known mostly for listening to Jesus, instead of busily distracting herself with other tasks like Martha. Scripture rarely has her speak, and not at all in this story. But she manages to communicate volumes without words here.
Not long before this party, this very same house was filled with the stench of death, the absence of possibility. Mary knew the stink of fear, anger, hopelessness, despair. When Lazarus died, Mary cried to Jesus when he arrived on the scene, “If you had been here, my brother would not have died!” But then she watched Jesus go head to head with the smelly monster of death, and bring her brother out alive. Because she has a vivid memory of the excruciating pain of losing someone you love, and how glorious it is to have them returned to you, Mary extravagant love in the present tense.
It’s entirely possible that the perfume she pours out is her dowry, her future. Her whole life. What was a woman without a spouse in those days? But she knows a gratitude so wide and so deep that this is the only way she knows to say what Jesus means to her. Resurrection smells GOOD! In Alan Paton’s beautiful novel about South Africa, Cry the Beloved Country, he describes a vast green valley as “lovely beyond any singing of it.” That’s what Mary’s joy is like: thankfulness that is lovely beyond any singing of it!
Maybe the other guests thought Mary’s conduct was crazy and inappropriate, but Mary was not proud. Her fragrant offering may have been a foolish thing, even a criminal thing, but if so, hers was a crime of passion, of true passion and devotion. Could any of us be convicted of such a crime? Have we ever expressed such devotion? Mary only needed Jesus to understand what she meant, and he does.
We know that he does, and that he is deeply moved by her outpouring of love, because in the very next chapter of John’s Gospel, Jesus mirrors Mary’s actions. This is love, Jesus tells his disciples when they eat together for the last time. Copying Mary, he gets down on all fours and washes their feet (it’s the same Greek verb and everything!). Let your love look like this, Jesus begs them. They resist, but he insists. Love smells like servanthood, like humility. He reminds them of how eager they were to advocate for the poor back in Bethany, and suggests they practice this kind of love among them.
We do not expect to find God kneeling at our feet. We do not expect resurrection in ourselves or in others. But this is what happens. God’slove is poured out for all, permeating the air with a fragrance so eternal that we can still smell it today. It smells like wine, like bread, like beauty. Let’s not be afraid to share a whiff of grace with the world. Mary Oliver explains the urgency of this task in her poem “Don’t Hesitate.”
If you suddenly and unexpectedly feel joy, don’t hesitate.
Give in to it.
There are plenty of lives and whole towns destroyed or about to be.
We are not wise, and not very often kind.
And much can never be redeemed.
Still, life has some possibility left.
Perhaps this is its way of fighting back,
That sometimes something happens better than all the riches
Or power in the world.
It could be anything,
But very likely you notice it in the instant when love begins.
Anyway, that’s often the case.
Anyway, whatever it is, don’t be afraid of its plenty.
Joy is not made to be a crumb.
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