Filled with Fragrance

Filled with Fragrance

Passion Sunday

Readings: Isaiah 43. 16-21; Psalm 126; Philippians 3. 4b-14; John 12. 1-8 (view all)

This week was a significant week in the Henley household — we celebrate both our wedding anniversary and my birthday. 

Amy, my wife, has developed a fantastic habit in recent years of finding and creating novelty cards with funny messages. This was the inscription on the front of my anniversary card this year,

On our Anniversary: I want you to know how much I have enjoyed annoying you, and how excited I am to keep doing so in the future.

Whatever your method of choice, whether it’s exchanging cards, presents, flowers, even planning dramatic acts of devotion, as human beings we are always trying to find ways to express our adoration to one another — whether it’s our partners, our family or friends. 

This morning’s gospel reading features a similar act of devotion from Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, as she anoints Jesus with perfume. So what is the significance of this dramatic act, and the reactions of those around Jesus? And how might we be encouraged and challenged in our devotion today? 

There is something deeply meaningful about the extravagant waste of something valuable, like the perfume in our gospel story, which we’re told was worth 300 denarii, or 300 days’ wages. 

Judas Iscariot is incensed, meanwhile perhaps the others in the house, including Lazarus and Martha, are simply stunned into silence by what they are witnessing. But Jesus’ response tells us that Mary knows something which no one else has:

Jesus is coming to Jerusalem to die — to give his life for the world — and somehow Mary knows.

So perhaps as a sign of what is to come, or perhaps because she is worried that when the time comes she won’t be able to, she anoints Jesus’ feet ready for burial. 

In doing so, she not only incurs the anger of stingy Judas, she also breaks every unwritten rule of polite society at the time with such an intimate act — as one commentator puts it, 

“Decent women” and “decent Rabbis” just didn’t touch each other like that.

The Lectionary Lab Commentary – John Fairless & Delmer Chilton

But Mary’s act is deeply symbolic, deeply touching and deeply appropriate, and as a result ‘the house is filled with the fragrance of the perfume.’ 

Perhaps what Mary expresses in action, the apostle Paul expresses in words in our epistle — he too is extravagantly wasteful, and this wastefulness expresses his devotion.

He takes care to describe all the qualifications which give him his high status in the Jewish culture of the time, listing off his birthright, his experience, his past allegiances. And then, having built up to a crescendo, tells us all are rubbish — in fact there is some argument that the word he uses is significantly cruder than the rather polite wording of the NRSV! 

He now regards them all worthless, all as excrement, compared to knowing Jesus Christ.

And whereas Mary anoints Jesus ready for his death, Paul realises that the way of faith takes us even further, to follow Jesus into death. For Paul, that is the Christian life —  to live sacrificially, surrendering all we are and have, in order to live the way of the cross — dying to ourselves in order to live in Christ.

Because when we surrender all we are to Jesus, our whole lives are a dramatic act of devotion — and just like with Mary, ‘the house is filled with the fragrance of the perfume’.

When we live in the way of the cross, recklessly giving ourselves away for others, then the attractive fragrance of Christ spreads to those around us — our friends, family and neighbours. And when we come together, surrendering all we have to grow God’s kingdom, then our churches are filled with the attractive fragrance of faith, hope and love. 

I wonder — will we, like Mary, devote ourselves to God’s presence, allowing Jesus to breathe his love into our hearts? Will we, like Paul, surrender all we are, allowing Jesus to breathe new life into the world through our sacrifice? 

How can we, as God’s Church, all across our community of Cyncoed, radiate the sweet fragrance of Jesus?

There is a wonderful prayer written by the great Anglican, and then later Roman Catholic, priest John Henry Newman — I wonder whether it could be our prayer for today:

Dear Jesus, help me to spread your fragrance everywhere I go;
Flood my soul with your spirit and life;
Penetrate and possess my whole being so completely
that all my life may be only a radiance of yours;
Shine through me and be so in me
That everyone with whom I come into contact
may feel your presence within me.
Let them look up and see no longer me —
but only The Christ.