Discerning Death, Embracing Life

Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She is anticipating and honoring the day of my burial.”

John 12:1-8

April 6, 2019, Words By: Joel Van Dyke, Image By: “White Matchstick,” Pixabay

Our Lenten journey moves into its fifth week. Our text serves as a gateway into the most significant week in world history. Nearly one half of John’s Gospel is focused on the events of this week and the days after.

Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem to die.

The week begins in Bethany with a banquet thrown in Jesus’ honor at the home of a man named Simon. Lazarus was present, as were Martha and Mary. They were likely celebrating Lazarus’ resurrection and honoring Jesus, the source of the miracle that had brought Lazarus back to life.

While the reality of the pain and suffering that awaits in Jerusalem seems incomprehensible, just hours before the banquet Jesus tells his disciples what to expect in the coming days (Mark 10:33-34). However, none of those closest to Jesus  seem to have discerned the need to do anything out of the ordinary in preparation for such a life-altering event. No-one, that is, except Mary.

The Whole House was Filled with the Fragrance

Mary approaches Jesus and smashes an alabaster jar of extravagant perfume, lavishly pouring the precious oil out upon his feet and wiping up the excess with her untied hair. What an arresting image of unbridled devotion and love. There is a time for counting the cost, and there is a time for extravagance. Mary embraces the latter.

The text captures the pervasive way in which Mary’s actions capture the attention of all who were present,

….and the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.

While the events necessitating the anointing of a corpse were still a week away, in this moment Mary begins to set apart Jesus’ body for burial. We find Mary in the same place where Scripture always locates her – at the feet of Jesus. She is at the feet of Jesus during a previous dinner party in her own home and also at the time of Lazarus’s death.  From that humble vantage point, she sees with clarity what seems to remain hidden from the sight of everyone else.

Mary is the beholden picture of extravagant abundance. She throws restraint to the wind and is free to lavish Jesus in an abundant spirit of joy, accomplishing now what she and her friends would be unable to accomplish after the crucifixion (Luke 24:1-3).

Scarcity meets Abundance

John records only one person’s reaction to Mary’s unbridled act of extravagant love — Judas. Judas recoils at the horror of having just witnessed this careless, sinful woman wasting a year’s worth of salary in, what appears to him, a gesture of utter stupidity. Life seen through the lens of scarcity in contrast to life seen through the lens of abundance. Critical stinginess versus lavish devotion.

“Let her alone. She’s anticipating and honoring the day of my burial.”

While Mary cannot possibly understand everything that is unfolding, somehow her faith gives her eyes to perceive that which remains hidden from the others. She discerns the pending death of Jesus, and chooses to respond in a way that embraces the lyrics to a song that would be penned centuries later:

Were the whole realm of nature mine,
That were a present far too small;
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all.

So we travel the road to the cross, on a collision course with the dark night of our Lord’s Passion, all the while squinting to see the distant light of Easter resurrection. While on the journey, Mary invites us to join her at the feet of Jesus, amidst shattered pottery and puddles of precious perfume. We are invited there to let our hair down in intimate worship of the one whose pending death will grant us the gift of abundant life.

When it’s over, I want to say all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
Mary Oliver
When Death Comes

About The Author

Joel Van Dyke