Stop and Smell Mary’s Perfume

Painting from Church of St Mary Magdalene in Esplugues (Catalonia, Spain)

Painting from Church of St Mary Magdalene in Catalonia

Spiritual Sunday

I’ve long been puzzled by today’s Gospel reading in which Mary anoints Jesus’s feet with costly perfume, only to be chastised by Judas for wastefulness. There’s something sensual about her wiping the feet with her hair, but what role does the episode play in Jesus’s journey?

Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” (John 12:1-8)

My friend John Morrow, a retired Episcopal priest, tells me that Jesus is looking ahead to the crucifixion and essentially saying that the current focus must be on that. He is definitely not advocating a lackadaisical attitude towards poverty, although that is how his response to Judas has sometimes been interpreted. The time will come again when the disciples will be expected to minister to the poor.

Although this explanation sounds right, I nevertheless find myself focusing on another element. Judas in the account sounds like one of those earnest activists that take people to task when they pause for refreshment. Mary, who elsewhere gets criticized by Martha for listening to Jesus rather than helping out in the kitchen, here is criticized for not focusing at all times on the movement’s goals. Jesus, in such a reading, is telling Judas that there is a time to play as well as a time to work, a time to enjoy as well as a time to minister.

To hold this reading means that I must disagree with St. Luke’s explanation that Judas just wants a bigger pot that he can steal. This doesn’t sound plausible to me, especially if, as some scholars think, Judas was in fact a radical Zealot who wanted Jesus to lead a revolt against the Romans. In my alternate interpretation, Jesus is telling Judas to chill for a moment. If we don’t pause to honor an act of love and gratitude, what’s the point of the movement.

This is a lesson that Jesus himself must learn in D. H. Lawrence’s novella The Man Who Died. In Lawrence’s account, which some have found blasphemous, Jesus, upon returning from the dead, realizes that he has never truly lived. He has been so devoted to a life of self-denying service that he hasn’t opened himself up to the plenitude of life. When he meets Mary Magdalene in the garden after the resurrection,  he has the following interchange with her:

[Your lovers] were much to you, but you took more than you gave. Then you came to me for salvation from your own excess. And I, in my mission, I too ran to excess. I gave more than I took, and that also is woe and vanity. So Pilate and the high priests saved me from my own excessive salvation. Don’t run to excess now in living, Madeleine. It only means another death.”

She pondered bitterly, for the need for excessive giving was in her, and she could not bear to be denied.

“And will you not come back to us?” she said. “Have you risen for yourself alone?”

He heard the sarcasm in her voice, and looked at her beautiful face which still was dense with excessive need for salvation from the woman she had been, the female who had caught men at her will. The cloud of necessity was on her, to be saved from the old, wilful Eve, who had embraced many men and taken more than she gave. Now the other doom was on her. She wanted to give without taking. And that, too, is hard, and cruel to the warm body.

Put aside the fact that Mary Magdalene wasn’t actually a prostitute and also the very male misconception that prostitutes get more than they give. This is a work about moving beyond a life-denying austerity, and by the end of the novella Jesus has learned how to revel in the richness of the world. Crucial in his awakening is a priestess of Isis, with whom he makes love. He comes to the follow realization:

Suddenly it dawned on him: I asked them all to serve me with the corpse of their love. And in the end I offered them only the corpse of my love. This is my body–take and eat–my corpse–

A vivid shame went through him. ‘After all,’ he thought, ‘I wanted them to love with dead bodies. If I had kissed Judas with live love, perhaps he would never have kissed me with death. Perhaps he loved me in the flesh, and I willed that he should love me bodilessly, with the corpse of love–‘

There dawned on him the reality of the soft, warm love which is in touch, and which is full of delight. “And I told them, blessed are they that mourn,” he said to himself. “Alas, if I mourned even this woman here, now I am in death, I should have to remain dead, and I want so much to live. Life has brought me to this woman with warm hands. And her touch is more to me now than all my words. For I want to live–“

This story meant a lot to me when I read it in college because I, like Lawrence, was struggling against the Victorian notion that duty was everything and pleasure was a shameful indulgence. Lawrence helped me move into a fuller appreciation of life, which is one reason why I included a Lawrence poem in my wedding ceremony. Reading him led to my own awakening.

I am well aware that one can go too far and take more than one gives. Our society right now has a problem with selfish people who are not willing to sacrifice pleasure for duty. Lawrence himself believes that there must be a balance. But encountering the story when I did helped me find that balance, and the hair-anointing scene remains a useful reminder to stop and smell the perfume.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

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