Six days before Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, home of Lazarus, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. Lazarus and his sisters hosted a dinner for him. Martha served and Lazarus was among those who joined him at the table. Then Mary took an extraordinary amount, almost three-quarters of a pound, of very expensive perfume made of pure nard. She anointed Jesus’ feet with it, then wiped his feet dry with her hair. The house was filled with the aroma of the perfume.
Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), complained, “This perfume was worth a year’s wages! Why wasn’t it sold and the money given to the poor?” (He said this not because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief. He carried the money bag and would take what was in it.)
Then Jesus said, “Leave her alone. This perfume was to be used in preparation for my burial, and this is how she has used it. You will always have the poor among you, but you won’t always have me.” – John 12:1-8 (CEB)
The dinner party is going well: good friends, good food, good conversation. Martha is clearing away the dishes and Lazarus is telling a joke when Mary comes out of the backroom with a jar in her hands. The room quiets as she breaks open the seal, and the sweet scent of nard begins to permeate the room. She kneels before Jesus and pours the nard all over his feet. Taking off her head wrap and loosening her hair, she begins to wipe Jesus’ feet.
We’re not told that either Mary or Jesus say anything. The silence is broken when Judas bemoans the plight of the poor. What could been used to feed a family for nearly a year has been wasted. Jesus tells him to let it go for what Mary did was appropriate given the situation.
Death is coming.
Mary was helping Jesus prepare.
I imagine the scene was very awkward. This close-knit group had just been through the extreme suffering, grief, and joy that was Lazarus’ illness, death, and resurrection. I think we sometimes assume everyone just said, “Hallelujah!” and went on with life — but this was all types of trauma. The women had cared for Lazarus, helplessly watched him die, and buried him. They had a house full of mourners when Jesus arrived and led them all to the tomb where he told Lazarus to “Come out!”
And what about Lazarus? We can only assume he lay in the bosom of God those four days. I can’t fathom what it would be like to be in the undiluted presence of God — and then find yourself back in the world. Would you laugh or cry?
Likely, this was the first time they were all together again after these events. Expectations were simple. The invitations said, “Nothing fancy. Martha is going to make her good meatloaf. Just come and spend time together.” The dinner was a celebration but also a time of sense-making of all that had happened.
Then, Mary and that nard.
Peter must have been in the kitchen helping Martha with the dishes because he usually he has something to say, but here, it’s Judas. John adds his voice with all these asides about Judas’ character. But John’s words are a distraction. They are a distraction to the distraction.
Who knows how scandalized Judas is versus just needing to say something, anything to distract from what Mary was doing. Anything to distract at the growing threat in Jerusalem. Anything to distract from thoughts of Jesus’ death.
Even if Judas was sincere in his care of the poor, now was not the time to be talking about it. “After all,” Jesus says, “the poor will always be among you — so you have all the time in the world to care for them.” But they didn’t have all the time in the world to be with Jesus. It seems that Mary realized that.
Death was probably still on her mind.
Despite what joy Mary had that Lazarus came back to life, her suffering was still fresh. As she looked across the table at Lazarus and then over to Jesus, was she prepared to lose someone she loved again? There had been one resurrection. But how could you expect another? The fragility of life was laid bare.
Mary could have done one hundred things to try and distract herself from the reality of Jesus’ impending death. Instead, she chose to face it. Rather than go along with whatever dinner conversation they were having, she named the fragility of life. The stench of death, the aroma of nard — she brought it all to the feet of Jesus.
Confronted with our mortality, Ash Wednesday is one of my favorite days of the liturgical year. Even though our mortality stares us in the face every day, we usually manage to ignore it. That became a little more difficult during the pandemic, where death was often a daily thought.
Despite all the money, power, and good genes we may have, we’re all going to die. It’s the great equalizer. Recognizing the precious nature of life, the unknowing of how long it will be, the ashes we receive at the beginning of Lent are a reminder that we are fragile. We are finite. From dust we came; to dust we will return.
Looking into the eyes of our mortality without blinking is one of the hardest things we do. It forces us to admit we are not in control. Like humility, vulnerability requires strength. To be honest, finding distractions from this hard work is the easy way out. But in the times when we choose (or are forced) to face our mortality and embrace our fragility, we need to take care of ourselves and one another.
In the midst of a dinner party, Mary may have recognized the vulnerability in Jesus’ eyes because she knew what it looked like. And maybe, knowing that she couldn’t fix it for either of one of them, she did the one thing that was in her power to do. The scent of the nard she poured over Jesus’ feet would have stayed with him through the week to come. Her love would be present with Jesus, even when she couldn’t be. And the same was true for her.
From Friday’s darkness through Saturday’s vigil and beyond, the fragrance of nard in her hair would be a constant reminder of Jesus. This is something the two of them were able to share when the fragility of life was broken, its shards left abandoned in the shadow of a cross. It was a gift they gave one another because they were willing to embrace the fragility of life.
We would never say death is beautiful. However, our acceptance that death is a part of life, opens us to a vulnerability that lets us truly live, truly love, truly be loved. As we reflect on the beautiful truth that we are fragile, let us rest in God’s holiness. Amen.