Christmas never ends, in my mind. I am always struck by its significance. Since the Garden fallout, God has pursued his children. At Christmas we find Him among us. Immanuel.
Jesus’s birth marks the advent of a thirty three year period of God living among mankind; a staggering reality.
But Christmas does not represent the whole story, only begins it. Indeed, we find the climax of this story in the Passion week of Jesus and then punctuated by a horrific death scene at the hill of the skull. Christianity views this scene as the culmination of Jesus’s work on earth, bringing salvation to mankind. The early church instituted a period of weeks leading up to the execution and resurrection of Jesus called Lent. During Lent Christians evidence their devotion to Jesus by “giving up” something.
I’m sure you’ve heard people discuss what they’re giving up for Lent. I wonder how many of us, though, have given up our entire salary or have spent intimate time with Jesus—bearing the deepest secrets of our soul to Him.
John the Beloved shares a riveting scene in his gospel account. I’m sure you’ve heard it at least once a year. That might be a good thing. It might also cause you (as it does me) to pass over the scene’s beauty and witness. Eugene Peterson paints the scene in The Message like this:
Six days before Passover, Jesus entered Bethany where Lazarus, so recently raised from the dead, was living. Lazarus and his sisters invited Jesus to dinner at their home. Martha served. Lazarus was one of those sitting at the table with them. Mary came in with a jar of very expensive aromatic oils, anointed and massaged Jesus' feet, and then wiped them with her hair. The fragrance of the oils filled the house. (John 12:1-3)
Judas responds to Mary’s seemingly frivolous act of waste with indignation and feigns compassion for the poor to hide his own greed. Jesus rebukes him, “Let her alone,” he says, “She's anticipating and honoring the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you. You don't always have me.”
Jesus’ comments do not direct us to treat the poor as secondary. Rather, He’s emphasizing the gravity of Mary’s action. An act of pure and unadulterated devotion.
Mary dumped a year’s wages worth of perfume on Jesus. Some scholars think that she doused him from head to toe. Then, in an act of cultural scandal, she let’s down "the tresses of her hair" and wipes the perfume from his feet. Mary’s gesture carried an intimate and even sexual connotation within their culture (it was considered inappropriate for women to let their hair down in front of men) and revealed her naked devotion to her Savior.
Does Jesus stop her? No. He thinks it’s good. He recognizes her devotion and a couple millennia later, so do we. Or do we?
I cannot fully grasp Mary’s act. The intimacy of it. The lavish worldly expenditure of it. I think Lent is good. But why do I participate? Why do you? How devoted are we to Jesus the rest of the year? Maybe Advent gives us an excuse to get our priorities straight?
It turns out Jesus is not whom the people expected. In the post-hoopla of Lazarus’ resurrection the people frenzy, shouting old Hebrew praises and laying palm branches down in front of Jesus. They want their king. They want their oppression ended. They want. They want.
Jesus grabs a young donkey and, without words, says, “I’m not that guy.” I’m something far greater.
Mary saw it, and gives you and I a picture of deep devotion that "signifies the utmost in self-humbling devotion and love, regardless of the cost or of what others might think." Maybe it’s not what we give up during Lent, but who we give up for all time; namely, ourselves. Do I value Jesus more than my work, more than my influence? Am I waiting at His feet, just being? Or am I too busy, off with the hurry? Do I cling to His Word regardless of what others say or think?
May we humbly adore our Savior and King in these weeks leading to Easter but may it extend into and throughout every fabric of our lives.
For more on the Bethany anointing scene:
- Raymond Brown, The Gospel According To John in the Anchor Bible series
Timothy Willard is the author of five books, including Longing For More: Daily Reflections on Finding God in the Rhythms of Life and the forthcoming The Life-Giving Adventure of Chasing Beauty (Eerdmans, 2019). He has collaborated on over 20 books and has written, consulted and served as spiritual director for organizations such as Chick-fil-A, Catalyst, Q Ideas and Praxis Labs. When he’s not riding the trails in the Appalachian mountains you can find him by the fire with his three daughters and his wife making up stories about Tom the back yard badger. He lives somewhere in the south Charlotte woods.