[This post is the transcript of a sermon I preached this morning at the local Anglican church I attend.]

Today’s Gospel reading is John 12:1-8. You can read the text here.


Come close with Mary, Martha, Lazarus
So close the candles stir with their soft breath
And kindle heart and soul to flame within us
Lit by these mysteries of life and death.
For beauty now begins the final movement
In quietness and intimate encounter
The alabaster jar of precious ointment
Is broken open for the world’s true lover,

The whole room richly fills to feast the senses
With all the yearning such a fragrance brings,
The heart is mourning but the spirit dances,
Here at the very centre of all things,
Here at the meeting place of love and loss
We all foresee, and see beyond the cross.

(“The Anointing at Bethany”, a sonnet by English poet and Anglican priest Malcolm Guite)

Retelling the story

Picture the scene. It’s Saturday evening and the sabbath is over. Jerusalem is already swelling beyond its usual size as pilgrims arrive for Passover, just a few days away. We find Jesus and his closest associates in Bethany, a village about a mile and a half away from the hustle and bustle of Jerusalem, on the far side of the Mount of Olives.

Jesus has already been to Bethany, not long ago. You might say he made quite a splash, raising his friend Lazarus from the dead after four days in the tomb. In fact, the commotion around the raising of Lazarus prompted the Sanhedrin – the Jewish council – to make plans to arrest Jesus and have him killed. In raising Lazarus, Jesus graduated from being a manageable nuisance to representing a serious threat to the religious authorities. Ironically, in restoring Lazarus to life, he effectively signed his own death warrant.

So Jesus is entering the final week of his life, with only six days left to live. The very next day, he’ll ride into Jerusalem on a donkey, setting in motion a sequence of events that will inexorably lead to his arrest, trial and crucifixion. But for now, he’s with his good friends Lazarus, Mary and Martha as they throw a dinner party for him at their home in Bethany.

Jesus knows the end is near. While his friends are still buzzing over the miraculous raising of Lazarus, he’s trying to put a brave face on things; but inside, he knows he’s a dead man walking. In spite of his inner turmoil, he’s doing his best to soak up every last drop of comfort and friendship in what he knows will be the final calm before the storm of the next few days.

Martha is busy serving, as she tends to do, while the recently dead and buried Lazarus reclines at the table with Jesus. (I wonder what Lazarus is thinking and feeling at this point? Can you imagine? It wouldn’t surprise me if he feels like he’s living in a dream!)

Part way through the evening, Mary discreetly slips out of the room, returning a few moments later with an earthenware jar about the size of a one-pint milk bottle. Without saying a word, she kneels at Jesus’ feet, breaks open the jar and pours out the fragrant ointment. The rich, musky, bittersweet smell of spikenard fills the house.

I’m sure you’ve all been in situations where somebody says or does something inappropriate and the whole room suddenly falls silent. That’s exactly what happens here. But then, with all eyes already on her, Mary does something even more astounding: in the middle of a room full of men, she unfastens her hair, lets it fall free, and uses it to gently wipe the perfume off Jesus’ feet.

Surprise quickly turns to shock. What Mary has just done is not only inappropriate, it’s outrageous. There are only two situations in which a woman would let down her hair: with her husband, in the intimacy of the bedroom, or when mourning the loss of a loved one.

Judas, one of Jesus’ closest disciples, is the first to break the stunned silence. “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor?” It turns out the perfume was worth one year’s wages for a  labourer – in our terms, at least several thousand pounds.

Judas might be the only one to have spoken up, and he might have had dubious motives for doing so – the text tells us he was the one who looked after the money bag, and would often help himself to its contents. But be that as it may, heads are nodding and there are murmurs of agreement around the room. After all, Jesus has been dedicating his life to the poor, the dispossessed and the marginalised. Why on earth would Mary, who knows him well, do something so wasteful, so against the grain of everything they thought he stood for?

And now, just when you thought things couldn’t get any stranger, Jesus, who’s been the silent recipient of Mary’s bizarre affections, pipes up. “Leave her alone!”, he says, sternly. “She bought it for my burial. You’ll have plenty more opportunities to look after the poor, but there isn’t much time left to tend to me.”

Pretty much everyone in the room is floored by Jesus’ words. The surprise is not just that he’s defending Mary’s actions; it’s how he defends her. What could he possibly mean by saying he doesn’t have much time left? He’s at the peak of his popularity; the future is surely bright.

And that’s where the story ends. Jesus’ words are not explained for us, and we’re not told what else is said or how the dinner party ends. The tension that’s been building through the evening is unresolved, and to cap it all, John goes on to tell us in the following verses that the Jewish religious leaders now begin to plan to kill not only Jesus but Lazarus too.

Unpacking the story

So what are we to make of this story, of Mary’s strange ritual and Jesus’ approval of it?

We don’t know what Mary thought about what she was doing or why she was doing it. We can speculate that she was overcome with gratitude to Jesus for bringing back her brother Lazarus, and wanted to demonstrate her thankfulness to him in an extravagant act of love and adoration. What we do know is how Jesus responded. Whatever anyone else in that room thought about Mary’s actions, it seems Jesus took them as a prophetic sign from God – perhaps a confirmation of what he already knew in his spirit awaited him over the next few days. But I think there’s more in Mary’s act that the Gospel writer wants us to understand.

One striking feature of this story is that Mary pours the perfume not on Jesus’ head but on his feet. Historically, pouring oil on the head was the way Israel’s kings had been anointed. Mary was surely one of those who believed Jesus was the messiah, so we might have expected her to pour her perfume on his head, prophetically anointing him as king. But instead she pours it out on his feet, and Jesus interprets her doing so as preparation for his burial. This king, John wants us to know, will not be like any other king Israel has known. His anointing foretells not power and glory but death and burial; his crown will be a crown of thorns; and his royal throne will be a rough Roman cross.

But I think there’s another perhaps even more powerful dimension to Mary’s act that John wants us to see. In breaking open the jar and pouring out the perfume so that its fragrance fills the house, isn’t Mary prophetically acting out the very essence of Jesus’ entire mission?

Right back in the prologue to his Gospel in chapter 1, John tells us that the Word – the logos, the structuring principle of reality – became flesh and dwelt among us. This is the central mystery of our faith: that the eternal, uncreated God – the one by whom and in whom all things were created – stooped down, took on flesh and pitched his tent among us. I can’t help but be reminded of the famous words quoted by the Apostle Paul in the second chapter of his letter to the church in Philippi, thought to form part of an early Christian hymn. Speaking of Christ, he writes:

“Who, being in very nature God,
did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant,
being born in human likeness.

And being found in human form, he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death
— even death on a cross.”

(Philippians 2:6-8)

Just as Mary breaks open the jar and pours out its contents, so Jesus offers himself to be broken for us, the giver of life poured out for the life of the world. And just as the whole house is filled with the bittersweet fragrance of Mary’s perfume, so through Jesus’ death, the whole world will be filled with the fragrance of God’s love: a love that will go to any lengths to ensure that no one should perish, but that all should have life – abundant life, starting now and continuing into eternity.

What will we give?

In what is perhaps the most famous verse in any of the Gospels, John tells us that God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son. We might borrow John’s words and say that Mary so loved Jesus that she gave her most precious possession for his sake. The challenge to us is obvious: what will we give?

In the face of this extravagant gift of Jesus that we’re about to celebrate through the bread and the wine, will we be like Judas, calculating, wary, and mindful of our own wants and needs? Or will we be like Mary, motivated by gratitude to give of our very best, in spite of what anyone else might think or say?

What will we give? What can we give? I know it might seem a little out of place to quote a Christmas carol during Lent, but I can’t think of a better way to close than with these words:

“What can I give him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb.
If I were a wise man, I would do my part;
Yet what I can I give him: give my heart.”


[Image: Lawrence OP on Flickr]