A sweet aroma

One of the events that occurred in the days leading up to Jesus’ death was that a woman anointed Jesus with perfume. Maybe you have never thought about how unusual and significant this event was in the midst of all the other activities that happened during this week. 

‘Six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus lived, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. Here a dinner was given in Jesus’ honour. Martha served, while Lazarus was among those reclining at the table with him. Then Mary 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 v 1 -3

The regular custom would have been for a servant or the lowliest person in the house (possibly the youngest) to offer the guests water to wash their feet and hands on arrival. The roads were unpaved and very dusty; sand would have collected in their open sandals and on the hems of their garments. But washing feet with perfume would have been very unusual. Feet were considered unclean and it would have been unusual to draw attention to them. 

When I lived with a nomadic people in the Sahara desert one of the rituals of greeting was to pour perfume liberally over your guests as a sign of honour. At a special occasion this would be a very expensive perfume that had been handmade. But if an expensive perfume was used, only a very small amount would be poured on the guests. When Mary poured a whole pint of expensive perfume on Jesus, it would have been very unusual.

Then, to the shock and horror of the people at the meal, this woman dares to dry the feet of Jesus with her hair. In our western culture, there is much less social distance expected between men and women. But in the culture of Jesus’ day, it would have been considered absolutely shameful for a woman to let down her hair before a man. This is still an issue in Arab cultures: women keep their hair covered as it is a prized asset, only to be seen by their husband. In wiping Jesus’ feet with her hair, Mary is expressing her total trust and devotion to Jesus as her Lord and Saviour. Mary is making herself vulnerable before Jesus and giving what is precious and valuable to her. This anointing of the feet with perfume was done to honour Jesus. 

How does each one of us today express our devotion to Jesus? Is it apparent in how we use our wealth, time and possessions? What steps will you take this week to personally demonstrate and give expression of your devotion to Jesus as Lord and Saviour? 

I currently have the immense privilege of working among people from Middle Eastern communities who now live here in the UK. My intention is to seek opportunities to share my faith with the Muslim men and women that I encounter: it is an honour to be able to introduce them to Jesus as their Lord and Saviour. They understand this story in the life of Jesus in its original context: even now the men and women from these communities do not interact socially unless they are married or from the same family. A respectful woman would not be seen with her head uncovered or inappropriately dressed and she certainly would not touch a man or maybe not even speak to him. The people that I work with can therefore see that what happened when Jesus was anointed was very unusual and significant!

J worked for a decade among an unreached nomadic people group in North Africa. She now uses that experience to reach out with the gospel to Muslim immigrants here in the UK. Read her top tips for sharing the gospel with Muslims or her reflections on welcoming refugees into her city.