Holy Week Monday
“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.”
April 11, 2022, Words By: Rev. Sarah Wiles, Image By: Wayne Forte
It’s Monday. Jesus has entered Jerusalem. It’s gotten serious. We begin. We enter into this ancient story and rhythm with him.
But first, this happens. It’s almost embarrassing to begin this week this way. It is not dignified. It is not reasonable. It’s physical and intimate and profligate.
Judas was right. This was a waste. The Christian thing to do is to sell everything you have and give it to the poor. Or at least be more responsible than this. Judas may end up being the bad guy, but he’s got a point.
But Jesus doesn’t lift up Judas’s reasonableness as the ideal. He lifts Mary, the one bent at his feet.
People have come up with lots of explanations for what she’s doing here, trying to make it not just an irrational, wasteful thing. Some say that she’s prefiguring his sacrifice. Some say she was anointing him as Messiah. Others say she is preparing him for burial.
Those may all be true, but I don’t think they’re the point. I don’t think Mary was trying to make a point. Sometimes beauty for beauty’s sake is enough. Sometimes extravagance is necessary.
What Mary did was definitely extravagant. She poured almost a pint of perfume on him. Think of a typical bottle of perfume. Then think about a carton of milk. That is too much perfume. It would have cost almost $30,000. Any way you count it, it was too much. But Mary doesn’t care. She doesn’t care what is reasonable. She doesn’t care what people think. She doesn’t care about what’s appropriate. She throws caution to the wind and pours it all out in love. Beauty for beauty’s sake.
This goes against every well-behaved, hardworking, justice-seeking impulse we may have. Mary gives no evidence of working hard. She shirks her chores and lets her sister do the heavy lifting. When her brother dies, she’s willing to make a complete scene, confronting Jesus in her grief. And she’s willing to waste resources on pleasure rather than using them for those in need.
Surely she knows the cost of all this. Surely she sees the mob gathering around Jesus, and the storm looming over him. Surely she knows the risk of wild love. And yet she kneels.
And why not! After all, at every turn, Jesus has seen her just as she is, and he has welcomed and accepted that whole self. In his gaze, she has been transformed until at last she throws all caution and reason to the wind and pours it all out. Sometimes beauty for beauty’s sake is the most important thing there is and the impending doom makes it all the more necessary.
When I was twenty-one, I had the opportunity to go to India and serve for two weeks in Mother Teresa’s ministries. It was completely overwhelming. We spent our mornings at different sites of ministry, and our afternoons at Kaligat, Mother Teresa’s first home for the dying, a hospice for indigent dying people. As unskilled volunteers, there was basically nothing we could do that was “useful.” We spoon-fed women who were hungry. We brought water to those who were thirsty. We changed bedpans. But most of the time we were told to just massage sweet-scented lotion into their weary hands and feet. Often the women were non-responsive. Sometimes they were obviously in pain and our touch did nothing to relieve that. These women had lived hard lives, and it showed on their bodies. We’d rub the lotion over scars and scabs and dry skin. We’d work our way carefully around wounds that were open or festering. It was powerful and useless and the most beautiful thing imaginable.
Of course, it doesn’t make sense for college students from the United States to spend thousands of dollars to fly halfway around the world to rub lotion into dying women’s feet. It doesn’t make sense for the Sisters of Charity to run their organization that way. Someone must spend thousands of dollars on lotion alone every year. It’s wasteful. Irresponsible. And yet—there is something unspeakably beautiful about bringing people from wildly different worlds together over sweet lotion and dying feet.
The beauty of Mary’s action is that it is both extravagant and human, just like the one at whose feet she kneels. This week will be intensely dehumanizing. But before that, before the violence, before the pain, this comes first. Beauty for beauty’s sake. The Human One anointed.
Dwelling Among Us
As we begin this week, where is beauty poured out around you? Notice, are you guarded against it? How does Jesus’ experience open us to receiving beauty, too?