Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. 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. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, ‘Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?’ (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, ‘Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.’ (John 12.1-8 NRSV)
Mary was worried. She was afraid this might be the last time she saw Jesus. There were so many forces arrayed against him. It was a dangerous time. So when she learned that he was coming to their home for dinner, she made a plan. She needed to show Jesus how much he meant to her. It wasn’t only that he raised her brother Lazarus to life. It was all the things Jesus did and said. He was a provocative man. He caused division. Some thought he was crazy or possessed. But Mary was among those who believed he was the Savior of the world. She needed to show her devotion to him in an unmistakable way.
So Mary took all her savings. She sold jewelry that had been in her family a long time. She pulled together all the money she could find. Then she went to the market. She walked past the weavers and woodcarvers over to the perfume seller. The merchant at the booth sized her up quickly. He suggested she buy a little vial with an ounce of perfume. Mary shook her head no. She pointed to a large flask, 12 ounces, filled with pure nard imported from India. The merchant’s eyes got bigger. He said, “That one is 500 denarii.” Mary offered him 150. They eventually settled on 300 denarii, or a year’s wages. They were both pleased with the purchase. Mary went home and waited.
The day for the meal came. Mary was quiet during dinner. She listed to Jesus and watched the others at the table. When the time was right, she took out her bottle of perfume and put her plan into action. She broke off the top of the bottle. Jesus was reclining at the table. Mary went to him and poured perfume on his feet, and then on his head, and then on his body. She poured perfume all over him. Conversation at the table stopped. But Mary didn’t say a word. She didn’t need to. Her actions were speaking for her. Then she uncovered her head and let her hair down. With her hair she wiped the excess perfume on Jesus’ feet and body. It was a holy moment. The house was filled with the scent of the perfume, the fragrance of Mary’s faith.
There is a book called The Heart of Christianity, written by scholar Marcus Borg. In it he speaks about ‘thin places.’ Ordinarily, he says, in daily living the barrier between us and the sacred is thick. But there are times and places where the barrier gets thinner and more porous, where the sacred seeps in to us or even overwhelms us. These are thin places, a term Borg borrows from Celtic Christianity. The common denominator of thin places is this: a thin place is wherever your heart opens and expands. The heart in the Bible is the center of personality.
For many people, nature is a thin place, a place where the glory of God seeps into our consciousness. For others, a sanctuary like this is a thin place. For me, this sanctuary becomes a thin place in two ways. First, when it is filled with music, with voices singing or instruments playing. Then the heart opens and expands. Second, when this room is filled with silence – as it will be during the Holy Week Vigil soon. There is something sacred and transforming when you sit for an hour in silence here in the sanctuary, and you let the silence envelop you and seep into you. At the end of your time at the vigil, you come forward to the altar and take the bread and cup of communion to remember the sacrifice of Jesus.
Jesus himself is the preeminent thin place. Marcus Borg says, “Jesus must have been a remarkable thin place. The devotion of his followers flowed out of them when they experienced him in that way.” This is what happens to Mary in our scripture. Her heart breaks open in the presence of Jesus. Her devotion flows out, just as the perfume flowed out of the bottle. She showed Jesus how much he meant to her, in actions without words.
Not everyone was happy with Mary’s actions. What she did created controversy, as Jesus himself often did. Judas in particular was upset and uncomfortable, and he probably wasn’t alone in that feeling. It wasn’t simply that her gesture was so extravagant, many thousands of dollars. That was probably only a surface reason. The deeper reason was that Mary’s action was so sensual. Think about it – perfume, a body, hair flowing down. In that culture especially, for Mary to uncover her head and let her hair down in public was scandalous. Many at the table would have been deeply uncomfortable about it. But for Mary it was fitting and natural, a perfect way for her to express her devotion.
Mary in the scripture symbolizes such devotion. She personifies a deep, passionate devotion that flows out of the heart. By contrast, Judas symbolizes the opposite. He represents discomfort with devotion, a visceral discomfort with lavish, extreme forms of devotion. His is an attitude you come across today, even in churches. You hear it in the voices of people who say, “It’s okay to be religious, but don’t get carried away with it. Be sensible. Be realistic. Don’t make a scene. Don’t risk. Moderation in all things.”
Ordinarily, moderation is a good thing. But not always, and this is one of those times. Jesus praises Mary, who is not moderate at all. He appreciates her lavish devotion. He even believes, in this context, that such devotion to his person is more important that good things like care for the poor. A startling thing, when you think about it. He also sees in Mary’s act a significance she herself may not see. He says she has anointed his body for burial, which in this Gospel’s timeline will happen within a week.
You can visit the tomb of Jesus today. It’s at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. It’s difficult to know for certain if it’s the exact place, but it may well be. It’s hard to imagine the early Christians would not remember the place Jesus was buried. They built a church over it – actually a succession of them – to mark the place and to give travelers a place to stay when they visited the tomb.
You walk into the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, and you see a domed ceiling high above your head. To the left you see a smaller chapel made of brown stone. This is where the tomb itself is, in a chapel within the church. You stand in line on the stone floor, waiting your turn. Only two or three can go in at a time – it’s a very small space inside. You must bend down low to go in because the doorway is low, but once inside you can stand up straight again. You see two gray slabs of stone where the body of Jesus once laid. They are very smooth – you can touch them. There might be someone praying or crying next to you. The room is lit by candles all around. And the room is filled with the smell of fresh flowers, cut flowers in vases on a ledge all around the room. I presume the flowers are changed regularly. The room is so small, the smell of the flowers is very strong. It’s the fragrance of faith.
Devotion motivated the builders to make the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Devotion brings fresh flowers each day into the tomb of Jesus. Devotion moved Mary to anoint Jesus body for burial. Scripture tells us devotion is pleasing to God, no matter what form it takes. It might be a bottle of perfume or a great cathedral. What counts is that the devotion flows out from the deep places of the heart, whether it is a big thing or small.
Pastor Stu Weber tells a story about his sons. His older two sons grew up as high achievers. They distinguished themselves in school and sports. Stu worried about his youngest son Ryan. Ryan was the sensitive one. He knew every day that he was third, following in the footsteps of his brothers. Stu spent extra time with Ryan, who enjoyed being outdoors camping or fishing. His prize possession was pocket knife. He always kept it with him, and he was proud when his brothers asked to borrow it. One day Stu was going to celebrate his birthday, and his family was having a party for him in the evening. That afternoon Ryan came by Stu’s office. Ryan was about 10. He wanted to give his Dad his card and gift ahead of time and privately. Stu opened the card and read it. He smiled. Then he took the box with the gift. Inside he found Ryan’s pocket knife. He had given his Dad the thing he valued most. He gave the gift out of devotion and gratitude.
I believe God appreciates our gifts and the devotion that prompts them. God is pleased when we give our best. Ryan gave his best. Mary gave her best. Don’t be afraid to give God your best. And don’t worry what other people think of you. Their discomfort is not your concern. They will say what they will. Your devotion is between you and God. And remember… we open our hearts and give our best because God is worthy, and because God has already given us his best in Jesus. Amen.