The Fragrance Filled the Room
Gospel Reading – John 12.1-8
This same story with variations appears in all of the canonical gospels – it obviously struck a chord and illustrated something of importance to the early writers. The woman is not always named as Mary, and in Luke her anointing is mixed with tears of repentance. In each telling of the story the disciples are indignant, but are rebuked by Jesus who defends the woman's gesture. One reason I love this story is that it is one of only a few in our whole Christian history that depicts with honour a way of giving testimony and being a disciple that is deeply and intensely feminine – though I don't think it's a way just for women.
Jesus explains to his disciples that Mary, or 'the woman', has seen and understood something about him and his task that the others had so far failed to fully grasp, and that her vulnerable, generous, and symbolic response was both appropriate and also entirely beautiful. In anointing Jesus' body with perfume in advance for his burial Mary shows an insight about the days of approaching death that the other disciples are still struggling to accept. In her pouring of the perfume there is a willingness to begin to grieve, sorrow, to mourn and let go. And there is a personal-ness, a softness, and a sensuality to her response that perhaps goes closer to the heart of what it is to know Jesus than many of us as his present-day disciples manage in the midst of our programmes, and even our organisations that serve the poor.
When I dwell with this passage, what stands out to me is the image of the whole house being filled with the fragrance of the perfume. And I recall also the words of Jesus in Matthew and Mark's recording of the story that wherever the gospel is proclaimed in the world what she has done will be told in remembrance of her, and the 'beautiful thing' that she has done.
What Mary does here is not world-changing in any way that we are used to appreciating. It's not a big programme to alleviate poverty – something that the disciples might have applauded as a worthy deed, and that was clearly within their thinking when confronted with a large sale-able asset. With a year's wages at her disposal had she sold the nard, Mary could have become quite the philanthropist among the neighbouring villages.
Instead what Mary does is an action from the heart, a response to a specific person in a specific time, grounded in love and recognition of someone whose body is soon to be brutalised. It is devotion. It is vulnerable. It is beautiful. And the fragrance of it fills the whole house, and echoes through time and years.
I know for myself that, in my idealism, I am often grasped by ideologies and systemic '-isms' that promise justice, and by stories of great deeds in the world that serve the poor and bring large scale change. But when I read this passage I wonder if I might do just as well to soften my heart, learn to dwell in devotion, to cultivate beauty, and to act with specific, vulnerable generosity and love, in response to what is in front of me. Maybe it's the case that anything we do with our whole heart, in recognition of the Christ, fills a room, a house, a street, with the fragrance of the Divine.
But then, if this is true, maybe it is equally true that these beautiful acts will always have their critics. That there will always be those who want us to do otherwise than the way of devotion, who want us to feel shame or embarrassment at our openness, or excessiveness, who feel that we have misdirected our love and our energy, whose own lukewarmness is provoked by our tenderness, or who chastise us for being 'womanish', or perhaps too erotic, in our mode of expression, whatever our gender. How do we react, and how do we cope when our acts of love and vulnerability are criticised?
One way is to learn to listen for the voice of Jesus, who never causes us to feel shame, even when we carry genuine guilt. And in particular learning to listen for that protective voice that says 'leave her alone' or 'don't bother him'...'this thing that has been done here is a beautiful thing', when we are tempted to take on board the Judas voice that comes to us in negativity and criticism.
I'm going to read the story from John again, and then we will be silent. In the silence...visualisation...where are you – disciple/Mary/Jesus/onlooker...? Let the scene unfold and the words spoken be the words that are given to you in the moment.
Or, simply let go of thoughts and images altogether and dwell in the silence of your heart.