The Fragrance of Love
John 12: 1-8
Rev. Peter Faass
We are a week away from Holy Week, the most sacred time of the liturgical year, when we will once again “walk” with Jesus through those last days of his life and celebrate his triumph over the power of death on Resurrection Sunday.
Holy Week is multi-layered in the richness of its theology, offering parallels to our own lives on how to deal with every possible human experience:
Holy Week is a gift from God through Jesus to us, his followers. But Holy Week has a component that makes me a little anxious – the Maundy Thursday foot-washing ceremony. Holy Week is somewhat “foot-centric,” and truth be told, I don’t like having my feet touched. I have some pretty big feet, providing more surface area for touching (not a good thing!).
Today’s Gospel story of Mary anointing Jesus’ feet and wiping them with her hair reminds me that foot washing season is right around the bend. So, I am steeling myself in anticipation of whomever will wash and dry my feet that night. Clearly, Jesus had much more resilient feet than I do.
Mary’s anointing Jesus’ feet parallels the Maundy Thursday/Last Supper foot washing event, which (based on this event occurring “six days before the Passover”) is only a week away. At the Last Supper, Jesus washed his disciples’ feet as an expression of humble love. “As I have done for you,” he tells them, “you should do for others.”
He then gives them the new commandment: “Love one another as I have loved you.”
“Love one another…” became a hallmark of the church and discipleship, which is why we re-enact foot washing yearly despite the squeamishness we have surrounding our feet. By anointing Jesus’ feet, Mary fulfills this love commandment before Jesus even asks it. She boldly gives herself in this radically humble act of service and love. It is an eschatological moment, when God’s reign is made palpable.
While Mary’s humble loving act foreshadows the commandment to love one another and is an inbreaking moment of God’s reign, it is because of who performed this act as much as it was done. We must not underestimate that who did the foot washing matters.
To state the obvious, but Mary was a woman. Now that may not be so earth-shattering to 21st century Americans, but in first century Palestine? Oy! It was scandalous for a woman to engage in what she did! In that culture Jewish woman did not under any circumstances touch men in public. Additionally, women’s loose hair was perceived as being sensual by men in Galilean culture, which is still true in some segments of Orthodox Judaism or conservative Islam today.
Also recall this is the same Mary who sat at Jesus feet to study, learn, and be educated… LIKE A MAN! This was also taboo. Women were not considered worthy of learning in that culture.
Remember the movie Yentl, with Barbra Streisand and Mandy Patinkin? Set in 19th century Poland, Jewish women were forbidden to study religious scripture. But Streisand’s character yearned to study the Talmud like males did. She is so passionate to learn that she disguises herself as a man so she can attend shul. Although this is now almost two centuries ago, 19th century Poland was chronologically much closer to us than it was to the 1st century. Old attitudes die hard.
Jesus’ interactions with Mary remind me of a story in Luke: When seeing Jesus, a woman in a crowd exclaimed “Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts that nursed you!” Highly complimentary words, right? Mary the mother of Jesus must have felt good about them.
Jesus was bold in his response to her: “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it!” (Luke 11:27-28). In other words, yes, child bearing and rearing are a good thing, but relationship with God is better. Being in right relationship with God is better than everything, because everything good in human life springs out of that relationship.
These stories convey that for Jesus, women are more than sexual objects and child-rearing machines. That’s why Jesus did not have a problem with being touched by women; seeing them with their hair down; with women talking to men; or being active with their bodies and alive in their senses. He did not see women as chattel or second class. Jesus believed women to be equal at the intellectual level, salary level… and at all levels. There are no glass ceilings in God’s reign.
Jesus’ empowerment of and high regard for women is underlined yet again when Mary anointed him with the costly fragrant nard. “Messiah” is the Hebrew word translated as “anointed.” Jesus as Messiah is the “Anointed One.” With this understanding, Mary “anointed the Anointed” as king. In this singular act, John’s Gospel offered a radical view of the power that women hold in God’s reign.
In biblical times and much of Western history, women did not anoint anyone. Men anointed men. The prophet Samuel anointed David as King. The pope (a man) crowned kings, (also men) throughout much of European history, and vice versa. The Archbishop of Canterbury still crowns the monarch in Great Britain. We Anglicans have a bit better history with anointing women as monarchs, if not as Archbishops. Heaven knows, we would not be here as a Church were it not for the brilliance of Elizabeth I!
It is earth-shattering that Jesus was anointed and given power by a woman. It is no coincidence that when he enters Jerusalem the next day, crowds hailed him with palm fronds, shouts of “Hosanna” and acclamations of “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord – the King of Israel!” A woman anoints him king!
March 8 was International Women’s Day. This annual event was founded in 1908 to celebrate the economic, political, and social achievements of women and to continue the fight for equal rights in all aspects of life. This year’s theme, the “Pledge for Parity,” recognizes that while we are better than we used to be in giving women their equal status in all of human life, we also have a long way to go.
International Women’s Day finds its authentic genesis in Mary and the foundational principles of God’s reign as expressed through Jesus’ love. Mary was a first century Jewish woman who:
Mary, for all intents and purposes, founded International Women’s Day. Because of that, it is in God’s reign International Women’s Day finds its fulfillment.
The scripture prior to today’s story centers on raising Lazarus from the dead. When Jesus arrives at Lazarus’ tomb, Lazarus has been dead for four days. This is in a time period before embalming was used, and Palestine is a pretty warm climate, so dead things get stinky pretty fast. When Jesus ordered the stone taken away from the tomb, Martha said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead for four days.”
Now parallel that stench of death at Lazarus’ tomb with Mary’s act of anointing Jesus with nard. The text tells us, “the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.” The story conveys that the stench of death has been replaced by the fragrance of love.
That’s what Jesus does; he replaces the stench of death in our lives with the fragrance of love. It is what we mean when we say in the third Eucharistic Prayer in Enriching Our Worship that, “he proclaimed the coming of God’s holy reign by giving himself for us, a fragrant offering.”
That’s what happens when we love others as he loved us. The stench of deathly human behaviors and attitudes is replaced by the fragrance of God’s love and inclusivity for women, the marginalized, refugees, the poor, the sick, the lonely, the bereaved, and for all of us – today and forever.