Then Mary took about a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. (verse 3)
I remember retelling this story at a youth retreat, way back when. The story is entirely memorable all on its own, but what made it especially so (though perhaps only to me!) was that I had purchased a small bottle of sandalwood perfume in advance and used it to give extra intensity as the re-telling unfolded. At just the right moment, I popped the lid and poured out the entire contents on a towel I had strategically situated on the floor. I then had great fun wafting that towel back and forth through the air, filling the room with wave upon wave of sandalwood. It was thick! Clearly I wasn’t aware of fragrance allergies back then!
I can’t think of this story now without remembering that fragrance.
Already this particular event was unforgettable. It was a dinner, given in Jesus’ honour. Matthew and Mark tell us it took place in the home of Simon the Leper, which seems to contain a story in its own right. Seated at the table was the formerly dead-man, Lazarus, now very much alive, which must have created a certain degree of curiosity. Meanwhile, helping with the meal-service, was his sister, Martha, who was an eye-witness to his miraculous homecoming from the depths of the tomb. This was a dinner party not to be missed!
And right as dinner was being served, who should come in but Lazarus’ other sister, Mary, bypassing the rest of the guests and going straight to Jesus, reclining as he was at the table, feet stretched out behind him, as was the custom. Mary carried with her a pint of pure nard – expensive, exquisite perfume – contained (as Matthew and Mark tell us in their Gospels) in an alabaster jar. She broke the neck of that jar and lavishly poured out its entire contents, anointing Jesus’ head (as Matthew and Mark tell us) and his feet (as John indicates).
It’s a costly act of devotion. The perfume itself is estimated as costing a full year’s wages. Can you imagine? Consider each of the other possible uses, multitudes of them, which had to be foregone. Bundled together, they are part of the devotion. Then, having poured out this extravagance, Mary acts in deep humility and lets down the tresses of her hair to wipe Jesus’ feet, effectively wafting fragrance throughout the room. The whole house was filled.
That fragrance is still memorable. It still speaks.
For, although she was criticized by those gathered (Judas Iscariot in particular), it doesn’t seem to have mattered one whit. Certainly the perfume couldn’t be put back in the bottle, nor would Mary have wanted it. Her intent was to publicly honour Jesus, to use the resources she had to express her love. On an earlier occasion, while Martha bustled about the kitchen, Mary had simply remained seated at Jesus’ feet, soaking up his words. She honoured him then with attentive listening. Here, now, once again at his feet, she honours him with costly devotion, its fragrance permeating the house.
Jesus receives her devotion. He affirms her action. He commands her accusers to leave her be. Yes, he says, caring for the poor is an ongoing need, but he makes it clear that devotion to him is an even greater priority. Always.
Down the years, Mary’s story has been told, wherever the Gospel has been preached. Matthew and Mark tell us Jesus said this would be so. Her example is meant to inspire. It seems Jesus intended her story would call forth costly devotion from all those who have likewise chosen to follow.
What will that look like for me this day? What about all the days, as yet unspent, that stretch out before me? What will it mean to embrace Mary’s example? What will it take to spill forth such fragrant devotion, bringing honour to my Lord?
Dear Lord Jesus, I offer myself to you afresh, as Mary poured out costly perfume, as Paul was poured out like a drink offering. May I, too, in word and deed, bring you honour. By your Spirit, use all I have for your glory. Even trials and hardships. May it all be a pleasing fragrance. Amen.
Reflect: What action can you take today, purely to express devotion to the Lord? What will it cost you? Offer it to him.