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Sunday 16 June 2024

The gratuitous, intuitive aroma of the love of Christ

Here's the reflection I shared at St Andrew's Wickford this evening:

As a child my faith was impacted by a musical drama of the life of Christ using scripture drawn from Genesis to Revelation which was called Yesterday Today Forever and was staged in Oxford in the mid-1970s. It was an ambitious production with three complete stage sets, a complicated lighting system, quadraphonic sound, a 50-piece choir, a 12-piece band, dance, narration, a great variety in music, and a back projected film. I was impressed by the integration of the Arts and scripture in a way that I had not seen prior to that point.

Included in the show was a beautiful ballad based on this story of Mary of Bethany anointing Jesus’ feet and wiping them with her hair (Luke 7.36 – 8.3). Called ‘Remember Mary’, the song imagines Mary’s thoughts as she carries out this extravagant gesture:

“I cannot look at your face - I dare not - for I have sinned so much and you know my heart. I want to look at you Jesus, but I have not the power to lift my eyes for I am guilty - oh so guilty. What can I do? For I am lost and yet you care - even for me. So I will pour this ointment upon your feet, dear Lord. The ointment smells so sweet; smells so. sweet; and yet I am a broken creature, I'm only but dust, only dust …”

Jesus responds: “You have done a beautiful thing to me Mary, in pouring this ointment on my body, you have prepared me for burial. Your sins are forgiven, for you have loved much.”

It was Mary’s own decision to pour ointment over Jesus’ feet and to dry his feet with her hair. No one expected her action – it was not done out of duty - and at least one person criticised her severely for it. It was entirely her decision, her personal way of giving to Jesus.

Giving in this way involved giving generously from her possessions because the ointment that she used was expensive (imported from countries such as India) and extravagant (half a litre was an enormous amount to use in this way). It also involved giving generously of herself as Jewish women traditionally kept their hair tied up in public and only unloosened their hair in the presence of their husbands. What Mary did in wiping Jesus’ feet with her hair was the ultimate sign of her love for and commitment to Jesus. She did all this, not with regret or out of a sense of duty, but gladly and generously.

In fact, her gift to Jesus is a response to the love that Jesus has shown towards her. She gives because Jesus has first given extravagantly and generously to her. This is the pattern that we see repeated in God’s dealings with human beings throughout scripture and which we see summed up in the most famous verse of scripture, John 3: 16: “God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son …” God so loved that he gave.

Love is the reason for giving, not duty, not regret, but love. In Jesus’ life, death and resurrection God gave everything he had for us. Philippians 2 tells us that, of his own free will, Jesus “gave up all he had, and took the nature of a servant. He became like a human being and appeared in human likeness. He was humble and walked the path of obedience all the way to death – his death on the cross.” This is the extravagant nature of Jesus’ love for us that he would give up all he had in order to all the path of obedience all the way to his death on the cross.

‘This is what Mary saw in Jesus and why she responded by giving extravagantly and generously to him. Jesus then astonished the disciples by giving Mary the highest commendation anyone receives in the pages of the Gospels:

“Leave her alone,” said Jesus. “Why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want. But you will not always have me. She did what she could. She poured perfume on my body beforehand to prepare for my burial. Truly I tell you, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.” (Mark 14:6 -9)’

In reflecting on this story the artist Makoto Fujimura has said that he prays that, ‘there will be a new aroma in the air: an aroma of Mary of Bethany, who in response to Jesus’ tears in John 11 and 12 brought her most precious belonging, her most gratuitous, expensive nard. I pray that in the days to come, this aroma will fill the air whenever the words of Gospel are spoken, that outsiders to faith will sense this extravagant air and feel it, particularly for them. I pray that when our children speak of faith, this gratuitous, intuitive aroma of the love of Christ will be made manifest in their lives.’

May that be our prayer this day and throughout our lives.


John and Ross Harding - Yesterday Today Forever.

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