The house was filled with the fragrance

A Roman perfume flask

This week’s lectionary blog focuses on the Gospel reading, John 12.1-8, which tells of the anointing of Jesus by Mary of Bethany. It also draws on the Old Testament reading Isaiah 43.16-21 and the appointed psalm, Psalm 126. Apologies for the delay in posting this week – due to various exceptional factors.

Clare Amos, Director of Lay Discipleship,

All the four Gospels tell of an incident in which Jesus is anointed (or washed) by a woman, but there are intriguing differences between them. In Mark and Matthew it is Jesus’ head that is anointed, in Luke and John it is his feet. In Matthew, Mark and John the incident is clearly related to Jesus’ forthcoming passion and acts as a pre-emptive anointing for his burial; in Luke the incident is placed earlier in Jesus’ ministry and the woman’s actions are linked to her own past as a ‘sinner’.

During the history of the church the passages have often been conflated: with the unfortunate (but telling!) result that the unnamed woman of Matthew and Mark, and the woman named as Mary of Bethany in this Sunday’s Gospel, John 12.1-8, tend also to have been viewed as ‘repentant sinners’, and their actions seen primarily in that light. There are far far more visual examples of Luke’s account of the tale certainly than the story as told by Mark and Matthew, when the pouring of the oil actually over the head of Jesus, recalls the actions of prophets of the Old Testament and their role in the anointing of kings.

Equally the story as related here in the Gospel of John, once we look at it closely, has some particular and distinctive insights to share, which are fundamental to John’s understanding of who Jesus was and what he had come to do.

Even a cursory reading of John 12.1-8 brings out the emphasis on the perfume, and in particular its scent., ‘The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume’ (John 12.3). That note does not appear in the story as told in the other Gospels. However it is intriguing that in the previous chapter of John’s Gospel there had also been another reference to smell – of a rather less pleasant kind. For as Jesus instructs the stone to be taken away from in front of Lazarus’ grave the ever-practical Martha (for whom I feel a great deal of sympathy and fellow-feeling!) comments, ‘Lord, already there is a stench for he has been dead for four days.’ (John 11.39). It suggests that the two incidents, the raising of Lazarus, and the anointing of Jesus, are to be read and interpreted alongside each other. If we failed to spot that through the reference to smell, then it is made crystal clear for us by the way that the Gospel introduces this incident at the supper, ‘Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead’ (John 12.1).

The raising of Lazarus, and the anointing of Jesus at Lazarus’ own home in Bethany belong together, and between them they take us to the very heart of the Gospel of John. There is a very strong hint offered in the Gospel that it was precisely because of the ‘excitement’ generated by Jesus’ raising of Lazarus, that the high-priestly leadership felt that Jesus had become a danger to their accommodation with the Roman authorities and therefore needed to be ‘sacrificed’ himself in order to ensure the safety of ‘the nation’.  (John 11.47-53).  

But that connection between the two moments of smell, one of beauty and the other linked to death, provides a powerful reminder of that biblical pattern reflected in this week’s psalm (Psalm 126) , which suggests that weeping leads to joy, and that life is drawn out of death.

John 11 and John 12 are the core central chapters of John’s Gospel, which is a Gospel whose goal is life (see John 20.31). They tell us of how life and death are intertwined, of how Jesus brought life out of death, not merely by his actions (in terms of what he did for Lazarus), but ultimately through his own dying which is provoked precisely by those actions.  They take us deep into the mystery of the cross. But they also take us deep into another mystery that John’s Gospel explores for us – that of Jesus’ incarnation.  There is a powerful physicality about these chapters – both in the story they tell and how they describe Jesus himself as actor and recipient.

It is interesting to note that in our short lectionary Gospel John 12.1-8 we have all five of the human senses directly referred to or implied in the story: smell, touch, taste, hearing, sight. And of course in chapter 11 we have that infamous shortest verse of the New Testament, ‘Jesus began to weep’ (John 11.35), which is surely a powerful expression of Jesus’ humanity. To return to John 12, we often fail to realise how physically ‘shocking’ the story is – especially in the context of its time and place. Presumably in order to wipe Jesus’ feet with her hair Mary would have needed to remove her headcovering, which to this day women in many Middle Eastern countries would wear, except in front of their closest family.  As many commentators acknowledge her profoundly personal physical actions have an erotic edge. They are daring and potentially dangerous, but they are also part of what it means to be a human being relating to another human being.

‘I am about to do a new thing’, is a line from this week’s Old Testament reading, Isaiah 43.16-21. In John’s Gospel the one who became incarnate as a human being is bringing to birth a new creation, a new Genesis (you only have to read John 1.1 to realise that!) This Gospel is indeed the story  of a new creation, including a new humanity. And a key aspect of this new humanity is that it re-sets the relationship between men and women – which after the events of Genesis 3 had been marked primarily by fear, caution, imbalance and violence. John 12.1-8 is a risky story: it is risky because it both hints at the risks Jesus needed to undertake to bring about the new humanity, but it also suggests that if we want to be part of this new humanity it can sometimes be a risky business. In honouring Mary’s loving gestures towards him, as indeed in weeping for Lazarus (‘See how he loved him’, John 11.36) Jesus shows himself willing to accept the risk of love.

And one other thing. John 12 is followed by John 13. This is a chapter which focuses on Jesus washing the feet of his disciples. Is it just possible that part of the ‘risk’ Jesus was to take in inaugurating this new creation was to allow himself to be influenced by the gesture of Mary, that woman, who only a few days earlier had washed his own?

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