Many of you, I suspect, will be familiar with that wonderful story of extravagant love by O. Henry, called The Gift of the Magi. The story centers on a young American couple, Della and Jim, who are very poor but very much in love. Each of them has one precious possession. Della has exceptionally beautiful long hair, which is her glory. Jim has a gold watch, given to him by his father, which he cherishes above all things. It is the day before Christmas and Della has exactly one dollar and eighty-seven cents with which to buy Jim a present. She so badly wants to express her love for him that she goes out and sells her beautiful hair for twenty dollars. With the proceeds she buys a platinum fob for Jim’s precious watch. When Jim comes home that night and sees Della’s shorn head, he is speechless. Slowly he hands her his gift, a set of expensive tortoise-shell combs with jeweled edges for her lovely hair. He sold his gold watch to buy them for her. Each had given the other the most precious gift he or she had to give. The story is a lesson of love, love so deep and so extravagant that it does not hold back or count the cost, but rather gives all that it has.
In today’s gospel we have a similar outpouring of extravagant love. It may be difficult for us, living so many centuries later and in a completely different culture, to fully appreciate how extravagant – and shocking – Mary’s action towards Jesus really was.
The story takes place at the very end of Jesus’ ministry. It is six days before the Passover and Jesus is preparing to enter Jerusalem. The gospel writer tells us that his “hour has come”; the end of his life is drawing near. He comes to Bethany, to the home of Lazarus, whom he had recently raised from the dead, and Lazarus’ two sisters, Martha and Mary. They have planned a party in his honor; Martha is serving and Lazarus is seated at the table with Jesus. Mary approaches Jesus with a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, and begins to anoint the feet of Jesus. She lets down her hair to wipe Jesus’ feet and we read that “the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume” (v.3).
What a beautiful gesture and expression of love, we might think. But to those gathered there it must have been far more shocking. Biblical scholar Adeline Fehribach explains: “Respectable women in the first century generally wore their hair in braids,” she writes. “For a respectable woman to let her hair down in the presence of a man to whom she was not related would have been considered scandalous behavior.”
The scandal is compounded when she anoints Jesus’ feet. Usually it was the head that was anointed, as a sign of royalty or as an act of hospitality. Anointing the feet of Jesus and drying them with her hair would have been shocking and highly suspect. And finally there is the extravagance of the very costly perfume that Mary uses. Judas protests, seeing Mary’s extravagance as wastefulness, and although the gospel narrator links Judas’ protest with his greed and dishonesty, his objection is not unreasonable. As Judas points out, the ointment could have been sold for 300 denarii and the proceeds given to the poor. Since the typical daily wage of a laborer was one denarius, the cost of this perfume was roughly equivalent to a year’s wages! Imagine spending a year’s income on a costly imported perfume and then pouring out the entire amount on a friend’s feet! In a land where most people barely eked out an existence, this kind of extravagance would have been shocking, to say the least. It’s no wonder Judas and the disciples were scandalized. Wouldn’t a few drops have sufficed?
The whole action is so outrageously extravagant: the suggestive letting down of the hair, the choice of an inappropriate body part to anoint, and the sheer wastefulness of such expensive perfume! But Jesus does not object. “Leave her alone,” he says. “She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial.”
Mary’s gesture is not merely an act of love and devotion; it is a prophetic act, foreshadowing his death. Mary has perceived the hidden subtext; unlike Jesus’ own disciples, she has understood that he is going on the way of suffering and death. And she has been moved, doubtless in response to countless acts of love on Jesus’ part, to offer him this parting gift, the kind of extravagant offering that only love can call forth.
In John’s gospel, the chief characteristic of a disciple of Jesus is love – love for Jesus and love for one another. The model disciples in the Fourth Gospel are all lovers of Jesus: the Beloved Disciple who reclines against Jesus’ breast at the Last Supper; Mary Magdalene, whose grief blinds her to Jesus’ risen presence outside the tomb until he gently speaks her name; the apostle Peter, who confirms his devotion with a three-fold profession of love on the shore of Lake Galilee following the Resurrection; and Mary, Martha and Lazarus, in whose home Jesus found such refuge and sanctuary. “See how he loved him,” the onlookers remarked when Jesus wept at the tomb of Lazarus.
“We love because he first loved us,” writes the author of the First Letter of John (I Jn. 4:19). Love begets love. The extravagant, excessive love of God spurs us to extravagant, excessive love in return. We marvel at the lives of the saints who love God with such radical abandonment – leaving their wealth, their homes, their families or their livelihoods to follow Christ. It can only be for love. It can only be because they, and we, realize how deeply we have been loved, that such sacrifices can be made.
In his Letter to the Philippians, St. Paul provides us with an example of this kind of devotion. “[I was] circumcised on the eighth day,” Paul says, “a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless” (Phil. 3:4b-6). ‘I had it all: a respectable family, the finest education, a spotless reputation, the admiration of others…, but “I (have come to) regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (v.7). Paul’s extravagant self-offering – laying aside privilege and popularity and power for the sake of knowing and following Christ – is the result of having known himself to be loved by God with such a great love that it can never be severed or destroyed. “I am convinced,” he writes to the Romans, “that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:38-39).
“We love because God first loved us.” We can risk pouring ourselves out for God, because God has poured God’s self out for us.
In our community’s Rule of Life, we read these words:
In the Godhead there is no possessiveness, no holding back of self. Father, Son and Holy Spirit are One in mutual self-giving and receiving. Faith sees the cross of suffering and self-giving love planted in the very being of the God revealed to us in Jesus. When God made room for the existence of space and time and shaped a world filled with glory, this act of creation was one of pure self-emptying. But God broke all the limits of generosity in the incarnation of the Son for our sake, “who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross… we bind ourselves to have the same mind… that was in Christ Jesus.”
(The Rule of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist, Chapter 6, p.12)
“See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called the children of God,” writes the author of the First Letter of John, “and that is what we are!” (I Jn 3:1). Children of God, who know themselves to be loved just as they are – forever and irrevocably loved – can afford to love extravagantly and recklessly, like Mary of Bethany, like the Apostle Paul, or like the saints. The French hermit, Charles de Foucauld, once wrote: “As soon as I believed there was a God, I understood that my only choice was to live for him alone. My religious vocation dates from the same hour as my faith.”
See the love with which you have been loved. Now love boldly in return. Give yourself wholeheartedly to the One who has given himself for you, holding nothing back. Love as you have been loved – freely, boundlessly, and unconditionally, with no expectation of reward. The great paradox is that by losing our lives in this way we gain them. This is the way to freedom, this is the way to joy, this is the way to life – eternal life, abundant life. Lose yourself and live!
1 A watch fob is a medallion or ornament attached by leather strap or chain to a pocket watch to assist in locating and removing the watch from a pocket in clothing.
2 Fehribach, Adeline; The Women in the Life of the Bridegroom: A Feminist Historical-Literary Analysis of the Female Characters in the Fourth Gospel; (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1998); p. 90.
3 Quoted in a small booklet entitled The Little Sisters of Jesus: Contemplatives in the Midst of the World (no further reference given).
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