The story of Jesus being anointed at Bethany by Mary is recorded in all four of the gospels, revealing the importance and the impact the incident made on the writers of the gospels. Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus (whose fame was being raised from the dead by Jesus in the previous chapter), "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).
Judas Iscariot vehemently objected saying, "Why wasn't this perfume sold and the money given to the poor?"(vs. 5). And this event, the gospel of Mark records, was the straw that broke camel's back. After this incident, he betrayed his master. The passion of this extravagant act provoked an equally opposite, and ugly, emotional reaction. As one disciple devoted herself to the master, the other betrayed him.
A pint of pure nard was worth about one person's wage for a year. In today's terms it would therefore be at least $30,000 (depending on where you live of course). No wonder that Judas objected to such "waste". If you saw someone pouring such expensive perfume on another person, I think the natural reaction would be to question "why?". Was the object of adoration worth this amount of devotion? Was she crazy, deceived by a charismatic figure, or indeed, as Judas claimed, foolish?
Artistic endeavors somewhat parallel this extravagant devotion. All the time and money that goes into making someone proficient (let alone a master) Chopin player are extravagant. Are piano lessons worth all the time and cost? In my own work, I use such expensive materials, I often have to weigh what my family will eat that week with what I can order for materials. Why do I use such expensive mineral pigments and gold? Last month, I had the privilege of attending the Glimmerglass Opera in Cooperstown, New York. I could almost hear these cost questions reverberate in the wonderful production and set of this remarkable opera house; Is it worth it to spend so much on opera when people are starving to death elsewhere? The arts parallel this act of pouring the expensive perfume.
Is the expense justified in art? In order to answer this question, we must answer not with "why", but "to whom". And it seems to me that we have only two answers to this question of "to whom"; it's either to ourselves, or to God. We are either glorifying ourselves or God. And the extravagance can only be justified if the worth of the object of adoration is greater than the cost of extravagance. The glory of the substance poured out can only reflect the glory of the one to whom it is being poured upon. And if the object of glory is not worthy, then the act would be foolish and wasteful.
Most of the time, unfortunately, even our best acts of "devotion" turn out to be an instrument for worldly success and gain. Judas was an extraordinary man with extraordinary gifts; he, along with the other disciples, healed the sick, delivered people from demons, and preached the good news of the Messiah(Matthew 10:4). He gave up everything to follow the Master. And yet, ultimately, he thought Christ had come to reign on the earth, to give him earthly powers and privileges. His heart ultimately deceived him as his master stepped closer and closer to the cross; the cross that would strip Jesus, and his disciples, of all earthly privileges and power. The only earthly possession Christ wore on the cross was the very aroma of the perfume Mary had poured upon him. And Judas betrayed the master with 30 pieces of silver; notably less than the worth of Mary's perfume.
Often, what we think is our adoration and offering to God, turns out to be false adoration and offering. The Bible is full of characters like Cain and Saul who thought they were making good offerings to God, when in fact they were not. Their offerings, and ultimately they themselves, were rejected by God. How do we know that our offerings are acceptable?
One true test is that true adoration and worship is always God initiated (in response to what God has already done) and not self initiated. Something comes to you, surprising and life changing--transcending everything you thought was possible. It may come in the form of an event or a person. But the content of such a message opens your mind to the possibilities of God's existence and his ever-reality. You are afraid and reluctant because such matters are too wonderful and seemingly unbelievable. And yet, the adventure beckons you to leap beyond yourself to a new domain, casting aside your comfort zone, your previous definition of God. Such was Mary's reaction.
If your act of adoration is earning "points" with God, your actions will not ultimately please God but only yourself, becoming a dull religious code of ethics. No matter how hard you work, how much you sacrifice, you will not experience the joy overflowing. On the other hand, the arts are a glorious gift from God; and in the process of creation lies the joy of God's creative heartbeat. Thus you will find in the creative process freedom and release; you will find joy and a measure of greatness, whether you believe in God or not. But if the offering is made to the Altar of Art and altar of self-glorification, you will find, as I have, the glory of your own works to create a schism in your heart. Your works, your ideals will only point to the double-mindedness of your own motives and existence. There will be a gap between who you are and what you create.
If you were in any way moved by Danita's story, it is because Danita's response echoed Mary's response to the extravagance of God. In doing so, Danita had to move beyond her preconceptions about Christianity and organized religion. If Danita's response to this grace is perplexing to you, then you simply do not understand the extravagance of God. If you understand how much God longs after you, you will understand her response: I encourage you to get to know Christ more. You matter to God; you are His most extravagant creation; and only by opening your life to what He desires to create in you, will you experience true freedom and joy.
Mary had seen Jesus raise her brother from the grave. She also heard the master talk about the punishment on the cross that he was to bear in Jerusalem in a few days. I suspect she connected the two events together in her mind. There was a direct correlation between her brother's life and her master's impending death. If she did not understand this analytically, as her sister Martha would have understood (John 11:27), she understood it intuitively. Her Master had to suffer, because he was so willing to weep and intervene, not only for her brother but also for her. He stepped into their domain, but as thankful as she was, she also knew that her world was filled with falsehood and sin. Thus, as soon as he chose to intervene, the glorious Prince of Peace had to become disfigured because of the reality of sin and death; the Beauty had to become the Beast. Every time Jesus healed and forgave, he stepped closer and closer to the cross, the judgement of God. The cross should have been for you and me, the Beasts trapped in the curse of our own doing; but Christ, the ultimate Beauty, intervened and took the punishment for us. Pouring a $30,000 perfume upon his feet is the least a Beast can do for the Beauty who loves us so unconditionally.
Jesus said after Mary's act of adoration "Leave her alone. Why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing to me...I tell you the truth, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her" (Mark 14:6-9). What a commendation! What hope these words give us to present day Mary's like us. Because the sad truth is that even if our offerings are made in pure adoration to the Father, and our creative acts reflect him, our friends, our families, and our churches may not fully comprehend our acts of adoration. Take heart...God is for you and your acts of pure adoration even if the world does not understand.
It is our prayer and desire that God will say that we have "done a beautiful thing" to Him; both as individual artists and as a body of creative people. Art that reflects God's grace and love will always accompany his Message; Mary, the quintessential artist, has already paved the way for us.
Mako Fujimura, August, 1996
Copyright Makoto Fujimura. Used by permission.
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