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A sign of love

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. {4} But Judas Iscariot, .... said, {5} "Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?" .... {7} Jesus said, "Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. {8} You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me." -- John 12:3-8

Nard was a costly perfume. It was imported from India, and rather rare. The only other places in the Bible where it is mentioned are in the account in Mark of Jesus being anointed in a similar way to that in the story that John tells of Mary at Bethany and differently in the Song of Solomon which we will see in a moment puts another light on this sign.

In telling of the events around Jerusalem that led up to the death of Jesus, Mark tells a similar story to that in John:

We are not sure whether the story that Mark tells (Mark 14:3-90 is an account of the same event. It includes the same dispute about the cost of nard and the use of money.

Both Mark and John set the story at Bethany, but Mark's is two days before Passover in the house of Simon the leper, and John's is six days before Passover apparently at the house of Lazarus and his sisters; and in Mark's account the unnamed woman poured the oil on his head while John records that Mary anointed his feet. Matthew gives a slightly abbreviated version of Mark's account referring to an alabaster jar of very costly ointment. John's account has some elements in common with a similar story in Luke 7:36-50 of a woman at the house of Simon the Pharisee who brought an alabaster jar of ointment and began to bath his feet with her tears and dry them with her hair:

That gave rise to another kind of controversy:

Whether these are different accounts of the same event remembered from a distance of fifty years or so, whether they run several events together, or whether they record similar things being done by several people, they all bring to mind a dramatic sign of love, a deeply compassionate tenderness, a careless outpouring of emotion, committed in true devotion.

Another kind of love

There are different human emotions associated with the use of the perfume nard in the only other place in the Bible where it is found. That is in the book of Old Testament love songs, the Song of Solomon or the Song of Songs. It is seldom read in Church, although a few of the more suitable verses might be read at a wedding, and some of the more erotic parts might be studied when Christian and Jewish attitudes to sex are being discussed (in which regard see the sermon Arise, my love, my fair one).

The Song of Songs, which is know as Solomon's [Song 1:1] begins with the voice of the bride:

A little further on in the first chapter we find the first reference to nard.

It continues,

I am not sure how much of this I should read to you just now. The images of love between a man and a woman are clear and honest. They are, of course, expressed in a culture different from ours, but we recognize universal human emotions:

Then in chapter 4 the bridegroom sings to the bride:

The bride responds:

Anointing in death

There are different kinds of love that might be celebrated with spices or expensive perfume. Now a change of mood -- where in the New testament do we have the use of spices like those in the Song of Songs ....frankincense, myrrh and aloes? Obviously, one is at Bethlehem when the wise men brought frankincense and myrrh to the baby Jesus, but that was a sign not only of his being a king, but of something to come later. The other occasion, later, was at his burial when Nicodemus brought spices and helped Joseph of Arimathea bury him in Joseph's tomb and afterwards when the women went to the tomb to anoint his body:

The women who had come with him from Galilee followed, and they saw the tomb and how his body was laid. Then they returned, and prepared spices and ointments. On the sabbath they rested according to the commandment. But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. -- Luke 23:55-24:1

The spice that had been used by the woman in the old marriage song to please her lover, now becomes an expression of another kind of love. Love offered in death. It is another kind of anointing of Christos, the anointed one.

The meaning of her action

How did Jesus respond to the extravagant sign of love offered by Mary at the dinner party in Bethany? What meaning did it have for him? Might he not have wondered whether perhaps, as people can easily do, she might have confused romantic love with devotion to him as Lord and Saviour? No, that would not make sense of her tears and the wiping his feet with her hair, unless there were other elements in it. He knew that all her emotions had been transformed into worship in the offering of devotion filled deeply with compassion for one who was in danger of death.

Jesus said, "Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial."

Mark's account is more direct:

And, indeed, she is still remembered. What gives the story its poignancy and makes it so memorable, the real point of the story, is the relation of her sign of love to his death. See how it is embedded by the gospel writers in the account of his passion and death: at the beginning of the same chapter Mark says,

and immediately after telling of what Mary did Mark goes on,

Do you see the significance of the action of Judas following his disagreement with Mary's extravagance?

As they came to the dinner they must all have been thinking of the possibility of him being captured and killed. John concluded the previous chapter with

Perceiving the purpose of his death

John had just given his account of how the Jewish Council had decided to kill him and how the high priest was made to say more than he knew:

John follows the story of Mary's anointing him with his entry to Jerusalem. Then comes the point of it all in response to the Greeks who offered him an alternative to his death. (On that alternative see What if Jesus had gone to Athens? , the sermon for this Sunday in Year B.)

Mary's loving service is the worship of the one whose sacrificial death is about to make him the universal saviour of mankind. She saw, perhaps dimly, what Judas could not see. How many of us would have chosen to sell the expensive perfume, resisting the impulse to make it a 'prodigal' sign of love? Do you see a similarity between the extravagance of Mary's love and the extraordinary generosity of the father in the story of the prodigal son, which made him, really, a 'prodigal' father?

How often do we still allow arguments about practicality, which are really self justifying, like the complaint of Judas, to take us away from centre of our faith, avoiding true commitment, love and loyalty. For, despite all misunderstandings to contrary, this is what it means to be a Christian, to be related first to Christ, in true devotion honouring him in his death and knowing the power of his resurrection. You can always serve the poor, and it is no excuse to think of the money spent in worship. Such service of people in need is something we must do. In doing so we serve him; but no amount of good works can give us that certainty of salvation that comes with faith in Jesus, the Christ, the anointed one.

It is particularly significant that John brackets the story of Mary's sign of love, not only with the threat of death, but with a sign of the resurrection in the person of Lazarus who was at the dinner table with him, who people came to see, and who the chief priests planned to kill. They came to see Lazarus and the authorities then planned to kill him because Jesus had raised him from the dead, a sign of the victory he was shortly to win for all.

Therefore, looking forward with the people who welcomed him to the city, and knowing more than they did, but not more than Mary understood in her heart, we too say, Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.

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