In our Gospel today, we hear about the anointing of Jesus’s feet by Mary of Bethany with pure nard. Passover is near and so is Jesus’s hour. Jesus is at table with Mary, Martha, Lazarus, and Judas. The significance of this is that this moment follows the revival of Lazarus. This is a pivotal moment because this is the sign that calls many to believe in Jesus, to love and worship him. It is also the moment that pushes some to plot his death. And in today’s passage, Jesus acknowledges his own burial which confirms that his death is coming. Without saying it, the depth of her action is illustrated in using the nard to anoint his feet at table rather than use for it for its intended purpose of his actual burial. She acknowledges the nearness of Jesus’s death with this intimate gesture. She could have anointed his head, but she did not do that. When she moved toward him, she dropped to her knees instead and poured the perfume on his feet: the ultimate act of servitude. "Leave her alone," Jesus said to Judas, and let her finish delivering the message. When Jesus looks at Mary and asks Judas to be quiet, he meets Mary with an unjudging love and understanding.
When reflecting on today’s lesson, I read other sermons and interpretations of this passage to see what spoke to other people. Some of the points I came across explored the extravagance of Mary’s gift and the hypocrisy in Judas’ command to serve the poor; or even the shocking and profound intimacy of wiping Jesus’s feet with her hair. The message I invite you to consider is one that overwhelms our senses and offers a glimpse into the power of God’s extravagant mercy and unjudging love. The vividly aromatic nature of this passage invites us to think about the Gospel by engaging our senses beyond sound, beyond words. It is as if Grace and mercy have a fragrance. Mary’s gift of nard emits an aroma that saturates the house and the minds of everyone in it. Can you imagine what a significant memory this must have made? Not only the strong aroma but the significance of Mary’s gesture and the significance of the interaction between Judas and Jesus.
But let’s look at what is so profoundly intimate about this moment between Mary and Jesus. Mary rubbed his feet with perfume so valuable that it could have fed a family in need for an entire year. But it’s not about the expensive perfume. Instead, it’s the intent behind the gesture and the vulnerability of Mary letting her hair down in room with men present. The love that Mary models, to everyone in that room, and even to us, is a love marked by extravagance. Mary loved Jesus so much that she exemplified humility and intimacy in wiping clean his feet with her hair. Barbara Brown Taylor writes that in Jesus, the extravagance of God's love is made flesh. In Jesus, the excessiveness of God's mercy is made manifest. The focus of the extravagance isn’t in the perfume or anything that money could buy, but in this radical, unjudging love. By pouring this very expensive perfume on Jesus’ feet, Mary is inviting all of us to love Jesus in the same extravagant way; to give not necessarily the best of what we own, but the best of ourselves to him. Mary teaches us what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. And in true reciprocal and unconditional form, when we love Jesus, Jesus gives the best of himself to us by way of God’s mercy.
And what do I mean by mercy, especially because I’ve mentioned it quite a bit in this sermon? How is mercy related to this intimate moment at the table? Cynthia Bourgeault writes in Mystical Hope that mercy is the length and breadth and height and depth of what we know of God—and the light by which we know it. She highlights that Thomas Merton offers an impactful understanding in his essay, The Good Samaritan. He writes that the word translated as “mercy” in English actually means “a fierce, bonding love.” Merton argues that Mercy is not about pity but is actually about passion. Mary’s anointment of Jesus’ feet demonstrates this kind of passion. Merton writes that it is ultimate and unfailing because Mercy is the unconditional power that binds one person to another in a covenant of hearts. That when we think of mercy, we should be thinking first and foremost of a bond, an infallible link of love that holds the created and uncreated realms together. If Mary’s anointing of Jesus’s feet does not represent mercy, I don’t know what does. Or if receiving 55 immigrants (as our congregation did this week) to care for them and relieve their distress does not represent mercy, I don’t know what does.
The moment at the table reveals a love so powerful, that like our senses, it pulls us into the present moment by drawing us into a closer relationship with God. I cannot imagine what that experience must have been like for Mary knowing the impact that apple pie and fresh cut grass bears in the relationship with my mom. I know that when my mother is no longer living, that memory will bring me into her presence and suddenly I will remember how she smells, the sound of her voice, and how it feels to be hugged by her. Perhaps our relationship with God works in the same way. In Mystical Hope, Cynthia Bourgeault goes on to tell the story of a woman who dies from a ten-year struggle with breast cancer from the perspective of one of her sons. She writes: “Before she lost her voice, she called all her boys around her and told us to keep our eyes open after she died, because although she would be gone from her body, she said she would still exist in smaller things, and she hoped we would recognize them. Although these smaller things don’t always jump out at me, when they come back to mind, I realize she was right…she is there.” Bourgeault adds that, the mother’s greatest gift to her sons was the insistence that they did not need to lead their lives looking backward. But by keeping their eyes and hearts open, they would encounter her love for them in the smallest of ways as long as live. Extravagant love can exist in small ways. By giving the best of ourselves Mercy is what remains.
This moment of intimacy between Mary and Jesus is not about the extravagance in her gesture but about the extravagance in her unjudging love. Feeling, through her senses, Jesus’s facial expressions and cues, and energetically, perhaps, sensing the death that awaits him; even before Jesus acknowledges to the group the death that awaits him in the ultimate act of unjudging love for all of humanity present and yet to be born. This is a powerful passage and one that draws us in deeply through our senses. When I think of my mom and challenges, I have encountered in my relationship with her, what remains is our unjudging love. When Mary anointed Jesus’ feet, the room smelled of nard: natural, warm, sweet, spicy, and musky. It causes the room to be filled with a fragrance of Christ so that ALL present will remember the power of God’s love and mercy. We will smell the smell of that nard as Jesus enters Jerusalem. We will smell it as he washes the feet of his disciples and when he prays in the Garden of Gethsemane, and again as he carries his cross to Golgotha. Perhaps even before the stone rolls away and the tomb is empty, we will smell Christ’s presence on Easter morning.