Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet and wiped them with her hair. John 12:3
Even before Mary showed up with her jar of perfume, it was an embarrassingly awkward dinner party. The first line of the gospel gives us the backstory: “Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead.” You can go to chapter 11 of John and read the whole story. But the gist of it is this: Lazarus was dead and buried in his tomb four days when his friend Jesus ordered the stone rolled away from the tomb and shouted, “Lazarus, come out!” And he did come out, wrapped in his grave clothes and the stink of death. This miracle caused some to believe in Jesus, but it moved others to report him to the religious authorities. Those authorities see trouble ahead. The freedom festival of Passover about to begin, and the crowds of pilgrims pouring in to Jerusalem will be hoping, as they always do, that this year God will send the Messiah to liberate them from oppression. Jesus might incite a rebellion that could provoke Rome to strip them of their power and make things worse for everyone. Better for one man to die for the sake of the people, they agree, and begin to look for a way to put Jesus to death.
Now with theses political storm clouds overhead, they’ve gathered for dinner to celebrate the raising of Lazarus. I imagine every disciple desperately wanted to ask, “Lazarus, what was it like, being dead?” But their mammas raised them better than that. Besides, they can’t talk about the raising of Lazarus without acknowledging that while it’s wonderful for Lazarus and his sisters it could lead to Jesus’ death. Which reminds them that the authorities might be plotting to kill Lazarus too, also not dinner table talk. So, there’s a lot of awkward “how about them Phillies,” until, thank God, Martha comes in to rescue them with dinner.
Only now Mary has gone off somewhere. Just as Martha considers going ahead and eating without her, Mary reappears, carrying a clay jar filled with a pound of costly perfume. Not an ounce or even eight ounces, a pound…the equivalent of a year’s wages. The median yearly household income in the town of Phoenixville is about $60,000…Mary comes in with a $60,000 bottle of a perfume called nard, which comes from the little blue flowers of the spikenard plant that grows in the Himalayas Mountains. Without word she kneels at Jesus’ feet, breaks the neck of the jar and the sweet, sensual, musky smell of the nard fills the entire house. Then she does four shocking things – first she loosens her hair. Respectable women do not do this. None of the men, not even her brother, had ever seen her with her hair down. Second, she pours $60,000 worth of perfume on Jesus’ feet. Someone might anoint the head of another, although even then it was always men who did the anointing. But never the feet. Feet were private and were only anointed in burial. Third, Mary touches Jesus. A single woman caressing the feet of a rabbi in front of a roomful of men is almost completely outside the bounds of propriety. Finally, whatever perfume has not been absorbed into Jesus’ skin she wipes away with her long, loosened hair in act that almost makes us turn away because of the depths of intimacy. Imagine what Jesus felt, the warm, sweet perfume touching his skin while he breathes in the exotic aroma. Her hands massaging his feet, with their callous and tired muscles. Her soft hair wiping the excess away. This is an extravagant, excessive act of love.
And it’s too much for Judas who objects. There’s conflict, which Jesus brushes aside and tells Judas to leave Mary alone. It is tempting to get embroiled in this argument – fussing between this and that, as if we are at a Church budget meeting, but I don’t want to go there today. Instead, let’s give our attention to the anointed feet of Jesus and where they will take him and us.
As the Gospel of John tells the story, the very next day Jesus rides a young donkey into Jerusalem. When the road is uneven, his holy feet press into the side of the animal to help him keep his balance. As they arrive at the city gate, crowds gather shouting Hosanna – blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord – the King of Israel. The other Gospel writers – Matthew, Mark and Luke – tell us that over the course of the next three days his feet carried him into the Temple, where he cleaned house, overturning the tables of the moneychangers, taught and surely worshiped until on Thursday, his feet still walking on love, climbed the stairs into the upper room where he knelt down to wash his disciples’ feet. In doing so, anointing them as Mary had him, loving them and commanding them to love one another. Following the meal, I imagine his feet curled up under him as he taught his disciples one final time and then prayed for them and for us too. From that upper room, his anointed feet walked back down the stairs, out of the city and across the Kidron valley until he reached the Garden of Gethsemane, where he prayed, was betrayed, arrested and taken away. The next day, the day of preparation for the Passover, his beloved feet carried a cross and then with arms outstretched, hands and feet were nailed to it, just as the lambs were slaughtered for the Passover sacrifice. We sing of this right before receiving his body and blood in communion, “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, have mercy on us.” In every single step from the home of his friends to his death on the cross the scent of the nard from Mary’s anointing lingered and Jesus knew he was loved.
We too are anointed. In baptism with chrism oil we are marked with the saving cross of Christ forever, for the lamb of God takes away the sin of the world including you and me. To remind us today as you come forward for communion you are invited to have your hands anointed as you are again marked with the sign of the cross, the sign of love, and then with blessed hands receive the body and blood of Jesus in bread and wine. Then we are sent out into the world with anointed, holy hands to do God’s work.
Think of all the places our sacred hands will go. Some will feed babies and change diapers. Dads know that Martin Luther once said when a father changes diapers, God and all the angels smile. Blessed hands will do homework and take tests, catch fly balls and play at recess. Holy hands will clean windows to let the light of the new Spring shine through. Anointed hands will correct papers, submit reports and send emails. Hallowed hands will play music, plant seeds, build walls, deliver mail and wash floors. They will help elders up from chairs and teach teenagers how to drive. Our hands will pray, share peace and give offering. Loved hands will stuff plastic Easter Eggs, flip pancakes and lead children on a Palm Sunday parade. Consecrated hands will do pedicures, massaging tired feet just as Mary did, others will cook dinner as Martha did and still others will welcome friends with a hand shake and a hug, as surely did Lazarus.
Today Jesus’ feet and our hands are blessed and made holy to do God’s work. Amen.