Is there a moment in your life when you knew, when you absolutely knew, deep down in your bones, beyond any shadow of a doubt, that you were loved?
If so, you are blessed. You have been blessed with the most wonderful thing, a most powerful experience, a grace that makes so much else possible.
For Jesus, this is that moment.
“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.”
Extravagant love. Intimate love. Grace upon grace.
Those of you who know me know that I am a measured person. Not too high, not too low. Careful what I say. Rational, sometimes even calculating. The idea of taking my whole life savings and pouring it out in one moment of extravagance – well it’s not going to happen. There are advantages to being measured. It keeps you out of trouble. It keeps you safe.
But there are moments when being measured just doesn’t cut it. Moments which call for uninhibited abundance. Moments when you are called to be all-in. Moments which demand not just grace, but grace upon grace.
This is one of those moments. The hour has come.
Mary sees what the others don’t.
They think that when Jesus enters Jerusalem the next day it will be a triumphant entry. They think that he will be hailed as a king. They think that resistance will be overcome.
But Mary knows better. She knows that Jesus’ death warrant has been signed. She knows that the moment he came out of hiding and entered her village of Bethany on the way to Jerusalem, that there would only be one outcome. She sees that this is her last chance to be with him before his death. And so she loves him. Intimately, extravagantly, shockingly. She’s all-in.
Disregarding cultural norms which kept men and women apart, Mary comes to Jesus as he reclines at table and she kneels by his side. She takes a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard and pours it on his feet. The perfume was a treasure, worth three hundred denarii we’re told, tens of thousands of dollars if we want translate it into our currency. Surely it was the most valuable thing she owned, and none of it was spared. That was shocking enough for some people, Judas among them. Like most of us, he was gripped by a utilitarian calculus which frowns upon such extravagance.
But that’s just the start. Mary pours the perfume on Jesus’ feet, anointing and caressing them with a love that surpasses words. At a time when women’s heads were covered, she lets down her hair, long and flowing, and uses her hair to gently massage the perfume into his feet and to wipe them clean. This is the most sensual, most intimate act recorded in the entire New Testament. When people went home that evening, no one would be talking about what food they had eaten. They’d all be talking about what Mary had done. She had been anything but measured. She had made herself vulnerable. She had opened herself up to scorn and criticism. She had anointed Jesus for his burial, to be sure. But in so doing, she had also loved Jesus with everything she had, with all her heart, with all her soul, with all her mind and with all her strength.
And the house was filled with fragrance.
Psychologists and neuroscientists tells us that of all the senses, the one that is most closely connected with memory is our sense of smell. I used to do a lot of work in Africa, and the one thing that I remember most is the smell. The tropical air, warm and humid, carries much more scent than the dry air we’re used to here. It was so often laden with the fragrance of tropical plants, juxtaposed with the smell of dust and diesel fumes. Whenever I would travel to Africa, the moment I got off the plane I would be overwhelmed by this familiar smell, and all the memories of previous visits would come flooding back. I had this wonderful sense of having returned to my second home.
I imagine that John the gospel writer, as he reaches this point in his narrative would remember the fragrance even across a distance of decades. As he sat at his desk with pen in hand he would have been brought right back to that house, to the smell of that perfume. “The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.”
I imagine too, that the fragrance of that moment stayed with Jesus for the next six days. The smell of extravagant love, the memory of a tender touch, the fragrance of knowing, absolutely knowing, deep down in his bones, beyond any shadow of a doubt, that he was loved. I imagine that he carried that fragrance all the way to the cross, that the fragrance of Mary’s love was something from which he drew strength, that in some way this fragrance helped make possible his own extravagant love offering poured out on the cross on behalf of you and of me.
Because in that room, in that moment of love that Mary gave to Jesus, I believe that God was present. I believe that God was acting in and through Mary to make God’s love known to Jesus in that embodied way that for us humans communicates far more than words alone can do. At his baptism, Jesus heard God’s voice tell him that he was beloved. In Bethany, Jesus felt God’s hands and hair communicating that same love.
And in this entire universe there is nothing more powerful than knowing that you are God’s beloved.
Perhaps inspired by Mary’s example, on the last night before his death, right in the middle of supper, Jesus gets up from the table, strips off his robe, ties a towel around his waist and begins to wash his disciples’ feet. They resist at first. It’s uncalled for. It’s over the top. It’s too extravagant. But he persists, and when he is finished, he says to them,
“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”
So love one another. It sounds simple, doesn’t it? But too often, we are so measured in the way we love, almost as if we think we could spoil someone by loving them too much, almost as if we’re afraid of draining ourselves by giving too much away.
But there is nothing more powerful than knowing that we are loved, and so we need to find ways to give that to one another, to create those moments for one another. We may have to be extravagant. We may have to be reckless. We may have to be intimate. We may have to be vulnerable. We may have to love with all our heart, all our soul, all our mind and all our strength, with everything we’ve got in order to make our love known and experienced in a way that will never be forgotten.
Like Mary, we may have to enter rooms where we’re not wanted, spend our life’s treasure, let down our hair, fall on the floor, offend people, risk being too intimate and endure our share of criticism. But if that’s what it takes so that your beloved knows, absolutely knows, deep down in their bones, beyond any shadow of a doubt, that they are loved, then it’s worth it.
That’s the way that God loves us. And God needs us to make it known. Because ours are the only hands God has with which to pour perfume onto the feet of God’s beloved.
Extravagance. Not just grace, but grace upon grace.
Love one another.
Homily Yr C Lent 5. April 7 2019. St. Albans
Readings: Isaiah 43.16-21; Ps 126; Phil 3.4b-14; John 12.1-8
Image by Neal Chapman (Creative Commons)