Surely Cinderella wore not only golden slippers when she went to the ball, but perfume too. Most people love fragrance. It is a wonderful way of giving ourselves a treat. It refreshes and energizes us, or it makes us feel sensual.
Perfume certainly changes the way we feel about ourselves. So we wear it when we go out to meet someone special and want to be attractive. Sometimes it becomes part of a ritual, say, when we leave work and move into a different environment like going to a party directly afterwards.
Even the names of perfumes such as 4711, Shalimar, Dunhill for Men, Blue Grass or Beyond Paradise make our imagination work overtime.
4711 is the house number where the cologne was first made. Shalimar means “Temple of Love” in Sanskrit. Dunhill for Men was created at a time when wealthy men began to buy and drive automobiles. Blue Grass was inspired by a field of grass with flowers at Elizabeth Arden’s home, and the aroma of Beyond Paradise tries to transport the wearer to the Garden of Eden with its fruit trees.
If a lady is going out she usually dresses in fine clothes, puts on make-up and has her hair done. So she can project a certain visual image. When she wears perfume, she becomes not only a feast for the eyes but also for the nose.
Depending on the kind of perfume we wear, we convey a message, such as: ‘come closer, I want to get to know you better’, ‘I want to show you how elegant I am’, or even ‘later I want to wear only perfume and nothing else’. Perfume then becomes like a gateway into another world, and opens new dimensions.
In Jesus time wine and fragrant oils were used for cleansing and as medicines, like in the story of the Good Samaritan. Perfumes, oils and resins were also used to embalm a body after death. This was seen as necessary to preserve it so that the person could go on into a new life after death.
We heard two stories today. At first glance they seem to have no connection with each other. Looking at them more carefully, they have several elements in common: A meal, water, for giving life to a barren place, and perfumed oil instead of water for cleansing and personal care. Another shared element is that in both instances they are an instrument for God to create a new people.
Both stories begin with a meal. The Old Testament only hints at the Passover Meal, but this is how the Exodus of the Israelites begins.
This is the time where the blood of an unblemished lamb is presented to the angel of death on the doorposts of the Hebrew houses.
This is the sign of recognition and freedom. Now the Jews can leave Egypt and begin a better and independent life in another country.
This is the time when they also start the journey into becoming God’s own people.
Jesus is at the brink of another life too, and he becomes the sign for the freedom of those who are, or will be, his disciples.
From New Testament times until today many individuals, and groups of people, suffer like the Hebrew people did.
They may be different from everyone else for obvious reasons, such as physical disability.
They may be excluded from certain life choices and opportunities because of material poverty or lack of education.
They may be different because of life experiences which have left inner scars, and which set them apart from others.
In Jesus’ time this may mean leading a lifestyle that does not fit in with being a respectable Jerusalem citizen, such as being a tax collector for the hated Romans, or earning a living as a prostitute.
Mary uses her hair to dry Jesus’ feet. Normally no decent woman will unbind her hair in public, or apply it in such an intimate way, touching the body of a man. This was totally shocking and could be looked at in different ways. She may be seen either as an immoral and socially unacceptable woman, or as having a very special relationship with Jesus.
Mary honours him by becoming his slave, but this service is the task of someone of lower rank. She cleanses and tends to Jesus’ feet in a way that goes beyond a servant’s job, and becomes an act of incredibly generous love.
This kind of love is sacrificial in more ways than one.
Becoming someone’s servant is never easy because it is a very vulnerable position. Mary uses the very best and most expensive perfume available for embalming, and so becomes an illustration of love.
This is the love Jesus gratefully received from her, and the love that he offers by giving up his life for all people.
The passage in Isaiah speaks of wild beasts honouring God, but in the Old Testament wild animals were not particularly respected. Jackals lived on carrion and therefore were unclean, but Isaiah allows them to be part of an environment that worships the holy majesty of God.
In a similar way this woman is elevated and given a special place in this story, although she could be considered sinful by the way she is seen to behave here, according to the traditions of ancient Israel.
But Jesus accepts and even praises what Mary has done for him. She has prepared him for burial, and thus for meeting his Father in Heaven.
In both stories, like in all good tales, we find obstacles too.
In the Old Testament it is the Egyptians who try and hinder God’s plan, but God still leads his people out of this situation into a new environment.
In the New Testament story the comment of Judas tries to distract from the beautiful and humble service Mary with her ointment did for Jesus, but he is told to leave her alone.
Jesus knows that this will be the final leisurely meal they have together, so the act of being anointed, or washed, with fragrant oil is for him like a gateway. Now his mind can turn towards Jerusalem and what will happen there. Soon he will go through the agony of being flogged, mocked and crucified.
This was more than two thousand years ago. How does that help us now?
We are probably all looking for gateways out of situations which trouble us in our life. Of course we can run away from them, or we can face them.
It is very hard and takes a lot of courage to face death, sin and failure at the best of times. It would be much harder if we had to face them alone. Instead we can look to Jesus for the support we need when we need it.
Since we are God’s new people, bound together by the love of Christ who died for us, we also have the support of each other. Through the gateway of Christ’s death and resurrection we shall become a new people, again and again. Amen.