This article is a transcription of an informal talk given by Dr James Krohn at Cates Hill Chapel, Bowen Island, in May 2014. Sources in both text and art are not extensively referenced, and all images used illustratively belong to the individual artists cited. Artwork above: Mary Anointing the Feet of Jesus by Donald Krause.
“Then Mary took about a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.” John 12:3 (See also the accounts in Matthew 26:6-13; Mark 14:3-9; and Luke 7:36-50)
I recently had the unenviable task of introducing (presenting a talk on) Jesus at a local Rotary Club Meeting. It is unfailingly awkward and offensive to do so, and voicing one’s pre-intention not to offend, as I did, almost guarantees the reverse. In spite of obfuscating along, in the post-talk reflection someone responded candidly; “Well, I know you’ve offended me, even if I’m not quite sure I know how!”
The dinner spectacle John describes for us in his gospel, even though remote, still manages to offend us (though not as much as the original guests), but, we’re not quite sure how—or, why, we are offended. We can determine this however, that the story gives us a picture of devotion—extravagant and reckless. Off-putting to most, yet with its own deep attraction. In some ways similar to Finley’s painting (see below for all artworks referenced) in which the attraction of the adoration-theme is placed in tension by the garishness of the colours, the bluishness of Mary’s face and hands. In a similar way, there is both push and pull in this story—there is tension for us.
What is fascinating is that all four the gospels contain this fragrant story (the olfactory bulb powerfully links scent to memory), but with slightly different emphases. Matthew and Mark both include the statement that “wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told in memory of her”, though ironically, they don’t name her. The painting by Dirk Bouts (15th cent.) thus has the evangelist pointing out Mary to a contemporary patron. Luke sees her as the ultimate example of penitence, almost as a parable. James Tissot (19th cent.) depicts this well in his famous illustrative interpretation. But, it is only John who names her, “Mary,” and in her, John sees an example of real faith; of true devotion, of authentic worship. The most appropriate example I could find is the detail in a Stained-Glass Window.
To worship is to give something worth. Living in a jaded society—our freedom, our affluence, our privilege, our boredom has produced in us an apathy, a sense of entitlement and a scepticism that precludes us from truly giving anything apart from ourselves, worth. But, in this story, we are caught by surprise again, by how beautiful complete commitment is; what a perfect picture devotion makes.
There are three elements in this story that constitute the picture of devotion; pure devotion, real devotion, true worship. It is always counter-cultural (unusual, sometimes absurd), costly, and centred on Christ.
Matthew Marino writes that “In a culture where a woman’s touch was forbidden, for Mary to cradle Jesus’ feet in her hands and brush oil over his ankles and toes with the ends of her [unbound] hair was unthinkable.”
You can imagine the sensory overload as the rich sweet-smell of the pure nard penetrated the whole room, and the shocked response as she shattered social conventions through her undignified act. How it must have jarred the minds of the men at that meal. It was a spectacle indeed, a reckless act of pure devotion; culturally inappropriate, shockingly extravagant, and deeply embarrassing to everyone. Everyone except Jesus. It is this moment that most traditional works of art on the subject attempt to convey, such as the beautiful work by Peter Paul Rubens on the left.
Contemporary artists like Dinah Roe Kendall (below) and Donald Krause (above) express the same emotive quality of social embarrassment, albeit in varying degrees from ugliness to quiet embarrassment. In contrast, Jesus interprets Mary’s act as a sacred act, one of anointing. In Matthew and Mark, where his head is anointed (see Krause above), the reference is to Kingship, to his Messiahship. In John, it is with reference to preparation for his burial. Instead of shaming her, Jesus honours her act, as in the stained-glass window of the Meyers Studio in Munich below, in which not only Jesus is designated as holy, but Mary likewise (and no-one else in the scene).
As Rachel Held Evans remarked, “This anonymous woman finds herself in the very untraditional position of priest and prophet”. Mary is both King-maker and Death-proclaimer to the Christ. Only in Jesus’ upside-down world does this make perfect and beautiful sense.
Christian devotion is always counter-cultural, apparently absurd—it does not necessarily make good sense. It may not resemble the dutiful, nor conform to the cultural mores. We would do well to pocket our ready scepticism and silence our intelligent rebuttals, and rather venture forth in faith at the risk of losing only that which we sorely need to lose. Our pride. There is only gain, because, as Mary discovered, at the feet of Jesus no person stands condemned.
Real worship is costly. Pure nard, we learn, came from Northern India, and a vial as Mary had in her possession, was worth a year’s wages. Yes, please do make the calculation. Frank Wesley’s Mary below not only brings perfume from India, but she herself is dressed in Indian attire. How or why Mary had ownership of such a precious possession, one can only speculate—most probably a gift for her own burial one day, as the jar had to be broken in order to use the perfume. The fragrance of which would be overpowering in such quantity.
Why such an extravagant act? Is there not something more reasonable (practical and sensible) and yet still costly that we could conceive of doing for Jesus? Yet, there are times when Jesus does not provide alternatives, or “better” ways. Sometimes the absurd and the costly is the only option. In this instance, no other gift would be more appropriate.
PAUSE. Imagine someone with the mark of Christ’s calling on their lives, weighing up the future—family and children; career, education, comfort, security and safety, pension and an investment to hedge anxiety over retirement. Wise choices, responsible actions, so many things to consider. Yet still, Christ beckons us towards the seemingly absurd. Who has ever expressed regret at heeding Jim Eliot’s powerful call; “he is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.”
Devotion to Christ is costly; it always always always is. But there is unfathomable joy and security in it. Christ-devotion is counter-cultural, it is costly, and finally, it is about Christ.
At the outset we spoke about offence. The dinner guests take offence at Mary, but we take offence at Jesus. In terms of our cultural sensitivities, he makes statements that grate against our values. When he says “the poor you will always have with you”, we feel our sense of justice provoked, and when he redirects Mary’s remarkable act towards focusing on his own mission, our sense of the obligatory affirmation due to the individual seems negated. Jesus makes us angry.
For our very own reasons, we side with Judas, the only one taking offence at Jesus and not at Mary, and therein lies the real rub of this whole business. Note how well Rubens (17th cent.) picks up on the intense confrontation between Jesus and Judas (identified as the one with the money purse), while Bouts concentrates on the offence against Mary. Rubens identifies that this is an offence to death. It is from this meal that Judas leaves to betray Jesus. Offended to death by the humility in which Jesus takes propriety rights to both glory and devotion.
The power of this story therefore lies in Mary’s wonderfully intuitive recognition that her hope, her salvation, her deepest longings and personal destiny is wrapped up in the person of Jesus. She knows not the complete extent of the appropriateness of her actions, but she has an inkling of worth compared to loss, of sacrifice and salvation. Jeff Hein’s Mary therefore lifts her gaze from the feet to the face of Jesus. The hour of his death is the hour of his glory.
John 12: 23-28a; “Jesus replied, The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. The man who loves his life will lose it, while the man who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be. My Father will honour the one who serves me. Now my heart is troubled, and what shall I say? Father, save me from this hour? No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour. Father, glorify your name!”
Mary sees. She recognizes what it means for Jesus to be the Christ, to be the One. That’s why, in contrast to everyone else at that dinner party, she is at Jesus’ feet, offering him worship.
I often hear it said that Jesus is one option for our spiritual interest (if you should have any) amongst many others. I cannot see how one can agree in the light of Mary’s devotion. Either he is who he claims to be, or not, and if he is, he demands our complete worship and allegiance—the whole vial of pure nard. Who would ascribe true devotion by measuring a mere portion?
Commitment to Jesus is an all-in matter, and the most beautiful image the human imagination can cradle. It is counter-cultural (it goes against the stream), costly (it will change the landscape of your life, not for worse, but for better), and a summons to the feet of the Lord Jesus Christ. There is no better place to be.
Mary Anointing the Feet of Jesus, David Finley, contemporary
Mary Anointing the Feet of Jesus, Dirk Bouts, 1440
James Tissot, 19th cent.
Unknown, Detail, Stained Glass Window
Peter Paul Rubens, early 17th cent.
Donald Krause, Contemporary
Dinah Roe Kendall, 1998
Frank Wesley, Contemporary
Unknown Artist, Contemporary
Jeff Hein, Contemporary
Wayne Forte, Anointing His Feet #2, 2008