“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.” John 12:3
During one of the periods of time when I was serving as a chaplain, I was lucky enough to work in a hospital that employed someone called a musical thanatologist.[i] Annie was a harpist, and she specialized in playing music for people who were near death. Her repertoire was vast – classical pieces, familiar hymns, spirituals, Gregorian chants – and she would do her best to have the music reflect the patient’s history and faith journey. She would even adjust the tempo of the music to match the changing rhythms of the patient’s breathing.
More than once I had the privilege of sitting in a hospital room while Annie played at someone’s bedside. I remember one particular patient – a woman who was quite old and very close to the end. As far as we knew, she had no friends or family nearby – no one had visited – so we were keeping watch with her. For a while Annie and I alternated – Annie would play a bit of music, and I would say a prayer. Annie would play a bit more, and then I would pray again. After a while words seemed unnecessary. Annie just kept playing, and I held the woman’s hand. The end, when it came, was peaceful.
When death draws near, at some point there are no words left to be said. All you can do is rely on other senses – the lyrical sounds of the harp, the smell of the disinfectant used to clean the room, the touch of fragile skin in your hand.
What we have to remember about today’s gospel is that it happens right before Jesus’ own death. Each of the four gospels has a version of this story, although the context in which it takes place and the identity of the woman changes in each one. What I love about the Gospel of John’s telling of the story is that Mary is the one who anoints Jesus’ feet. Mary, one of his dearest friends. Mary, sister of Martha and Lazarus. Mary, the one who loves to sit at Jesus’ feet and learn from him and talk with him, somehow knows that he is about to die. I’m sure of it.
They have faced death together before, Mary and Jesus. Remember that Lazarus – her brother, his friend – had been fully dead for three days. He was wrapped up in a burial cloth and sealed in a tomb. Until Jesus arrives, and suddenly Lazarus is stumbling out of that tomb – fully alive.
Even now there is danger all around. Everyone in the house must sense it. The very next passage tells us that there are people who want to put Lazarus to death because his coming back to life has caused so many people to follow Jesus.
Mary knows that the end is near for Jesus. And she does not flinch. She does not retreat or look away. She does something beautiful and extravagant. She pours expensive perfume over his feet. The scent of that perfume fills the entire house. She makes sure his feet are soaked in it, and she wipes his feet with her hair.
Anointing with a special oil was usually done for one of two purposes. Either you were preparing a king for a coronation or you were preparing a body for its burial. I believe in Mary’s case she’s doing both. She knows that Jesus is the messiah, the anointed one. She also knows that he is about to die.
There will always be those who, in the face of death, will try to be practical – or will use the practical as an excuse to retreat from the realities of death. Judas pretends to be this way, but he doesn’t really care about the poor. All he understands are the cold and bitter transactions of the world. He will betray Jesus for a few coins and a few minutes of feeling important. But in this moment, he seizes the opportunity to criticize what Mary is doing – not because he feels compassion for those who are hungry, but because he can’t fathom Mary’s generosity.
In this moment Judas and the others are confronted by an act so tender and so lavish that it embarrasses them. Mary holds nothing back.
And let’s get something straight about what Jesus says about the poor: “The poor will always be with you.” He’s not suggesting that we should be dismissive of the poor. That would go against everything he has preached and taught and lived. Many scholars believe that he is alluding to Deuteronomy 15:11, which says: “Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.’”[ii] We are always called to care for the needs of those who are struggling. But we are also called to care for the needs of the dying. Both can be true.
Another writer has suggested that the Greek could also be translated as “Keep the poor among you always.” Keep their care at the forefront of your minds – Jesus might be saying – even when I’m gone.[iii] That would also be in keeping with the Jesus’ mission and ministry.
What does this story summon us to do? Think about a person who drives you crazy, someone who presses all of your buttons. Now imagine that you learned that person was dying. How would you treat the person then? Probably with more compassion, more patience.
Well, here’s the truth: That person is dying. We are all dying. We don’t know how or when, but we are. Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. And in our dying bodies we carry every experience we have had in this life – the beautiful and the terrible. Sometimes we’ve been so hurt that we have lashed out like wounded animals, acting without any regard for the consequences.
Everything that happens to us happens to our bodies. Every act of love, every insult, every moment of pleasure, every interaction we have with other humans. Every hateful thing we have said or which has been said to us has happened to our bodies. Every kindness, every sorrow. Every ounce of laughter. We carry all of it with us within our skin. We are walking embodiments of our entire story.
We are walking embodiments of our entire story. That’s what Mary knows down in her soul. Whatever horrors await Jesus in the coming hours – and there will be many – she can help inscribe upon his body a moment of tender care. He will go to his death knowing he is loved. When he’s arrested, the scent of that perfume will still be in his nostrils. His feet will be pierced, but first they will have been cherished.
That person who drives you crazy? That person is dying too. Probably not today. Probably not tomorrow. But we don’t know. What would it be like to treat them with the compassion that we hold for the dying? To help them carry a story of love in their bones and in their skin?
That’s how God sees each of us – as dying, but not forsaken. God pours out upon us the love and tenderness that we need to write a new story in our fragile bodies. When we take our last breath, God pours out upon us the ultimate, extravagant gift of eternal life. These are gifts we can never understand. We can only receive them with grateful hearts. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ