Shah Jahan, the Fifth Mughal emperor of India, was so deeply in love with his 3rd wife, that when she died in 1631 he spent the equivalent of a billion dollars to create a final resting place for her, an exquisite mausoleum that would speak to the world of the grace and beauty of the woman who was laid to rest within its walls. He called it the Taj Mahal, naming it after his beloved wife. It has inspired lovers for centuries and is now designated as a world heritage site.
When Amytis, the daughter of the king of Media, was sent to the flat and arid desert kingdom of Babylon to cement the political alliance between the two kingdoms, she became terribly homesick for the mountains and forests of her homeland. Her husband, Nebuchadnezzar II, the king of Babylon, thought she might feel more at home if she had a garden. So he created one for her, the legendary Hanging Gardens of Babylon. Out of love for her, he created a place in the desert where she could be surrounded by lush greenery, and his extravagant monument to his love for her came to be revered as one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.
History is filled with extravagant acts of love and devotion—Queen Victoria’s legendary decades of mourning for Prince Albert; Lucille Ball refusing to be part of I Love Lucy, a show named for her, unless her husband Desi Arnaz played her husband on the show; Joe DiMaggio sending roses to adorn the grave of Marilyn Monroe several times a week for decades—those were all inspiring and extravagant acts of love. But the most famous act of devotion in history happened one night at a private dinner in the little town of Bethany on the outskirts of Jerusalem.
Six days before the Passover, Jesus and his disciples came to Bethany to dine at the home of Lazarus, Mary and Martha. While they were dining, Mary began to anoint Jesus’s feet with a very expensive aromatic oil made from spikenard. She not only massaged the ointment into his tired feet, she dried them with her hair.
This has to be one of the most evocative and sensual moments in the whole Bible. This scene in the Gospel of John engages all our senses. The soothing balm of the ointment being lovingly and gently massaged into the skin of Jesus’s feet by tender and sensitive hands. The silken touch of Mary’s long, dark hair caressing his feet as she dries them. And the aroma. The fragrance, John tells us, filled the house—the fragrance of spikenard. Earthy. Spicy. Musky. Soothing. Hypnotic. Even in ancient times, the scent of spikenard was used as aromatherapy to dispel anxiety and stress. It was even used to treat melancholia—what we call depression. The ancients believed that it’s scent could transport you out of your thoughts or worries or sadness into a state of tranquility, peace and well-being.
When Mary rubbed this exotic, expensive ointment onto Jesus’s feet, her lovely, extravagant act of devotion, kindness and love was probably exactly what Jesus needed at that moment. The tender massaging of his feet after so many, many months of walking the stony and dusty roads of Galilee, the Decapolis, and Judah probably felt like a little bit of heaven. After all the road-weary days and nights surrounded by sweaty disciples and jostling crowds the soothing fragrance that was filling every corner of the house was probably the nicest aroma he had smelled in a very long time. That moment of just plain niceness as Mary focused all her attention on doing something pleasant for him, something that would speak her love for him better than any words—that moment would be his last moment of peace, intimacy and tenderness before his crucifixion.
Sadly, that moment was interrupted.
“Why wasn’t this ointment sold and the money given to the poor?” asked Judas. “This stuff is worth what…three hundred denarii? That’s the better part of a year’s wages for a laborer. There are better ways to use that much money than slathering it on his feet.”
The Gospel of John tells us that Judas wasn’t really concerned about the poor at all but was angling for a way to get some of that cash into his own pockets. And maybe that’s true. But to be fair, spikenard ointment really was very, very expensive. It’s made from a plant in the honeysuckle family that grows in the Himalayas of Nepal, India and China. It was costly to make it and even more costly to transport it.
All four gospels tell the story of this deeply personal encounter, but they tell it in different ways. In Matthew and Mark the dinner is held at the home of Simon the Leper and the woman who lavishes both expensive ointment and intimate attention on Jesus is not named. In Luke the dinner is held at a Pharisee’s house. Once again the woman is not named, but then neither is their host, the Pharisee. One thing that all versions of this story have in common, though, is that someone is indignant about the attention and the expense being lavished on Jesus. In Matthew and Mark, it’s all the disciples who complain about the expense of the ointment. All of them chime in about how the money could have been given to the poor. “Why was this ointment wasted in this way?” they say in Mark. “Why this waste?” in Matthew.
Waste. Her extravagant care for Jesus, her loving attention—they see it as wasteful.
Why is it that some of us are so uncomfortable with extravagant expressions of love and devotion? What is it about moments of intimate caring that get some of us up on our high horse and turns us into critics? What is it about lavish gestures of affection that suddenly turns some of us into outspoken proponents of philanthropy for the anonymous poor?
I don’t usually quote Friedrich Nietzsche, but there is something he wrote that seems particularly appropriate here. He said, “The certain prospect of death could sweeten every life with a precious and fragrant drop of levity—and now you strange apothecary souls have turned it into an ill-tasting drop of poison that makes the whole of life repulsive.”
Mary had bought this expensive ointment to anoint Jesus’s body after his death. But she loved him so much that she couldn’t bear the thought that he wouldn’t get to experience its healing and soothing properties while he was still alive. So she opened the alabaster jar and anointed Jesus with it while he was still alive to sweeten his last hours and days “with a precious and fragrant drop of levity.” She brought lightness to counter the heaviness of those final days.
Life is both precious and precarious. Death is a foregone conclusion; it’s only the timing that’s uncertain. So why do we not live every moment of every day with “a precious and fragrant drop of levity?” Why do we not find more ways to express our love for each other?
Why do we back away from extravagance? We should be accustomed to it. At least, we should be if we’re paying attention. “If the landscape reveals one certainty,” wrote Annie Dillard, “it is that the extravagant gesture is the very stuff of creation. After the one extravagant gesture of creation in the first place, the universe has continued to deal exclusively in extravagances, flinging intricacies and colossi down aeons of emptiness, heaping profusions on profligacies with ever-fresh vigor. The whole show has been on fire from the word go.”
Mary was extravagant in her love for Jesus. Jesus was extravagant in his love for the world. And God has been extravagant in love poured out into all of creation.
“There is a time for risky love,” said Max Lucado. There is a time for extravagant gestures. There is a time to pour out your affections on one you love. And when it comes—seize it, don’t miss it.”
May the extravagant love of Christ fill our hearts and give us courage to extravagantly love each other. In Jesus’ name.