John 12:1-8, The Aroma of Sacrifice

[March 17, 2013] In the cycle of Sunday Lenten readings this year (Year C), the anointing of Jesus by Mary of Bethany is the last thing that happens before Jesus’ royal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. John’s gospel, more historical here than Matthew’s and Mark’s (which place the story later), recount Mary as the prophetess who anoints Jesus as the King of Israel on the evening before the crowd of pilgrims hail Him as the King of Israel who comes in the Name of the Lord as they parade Him into the royal city of David. The connection between these two events is only hinted at in the text because historically, in Roman Palestine, they were treasonous acts—Jesus was in fact condemned by Pilate for presuming to be “the King of the Jews”—and because John had even more important things to convey by the story of Mary within the overall structure of his gospel.

Before we dismiss this theme, however, I think it is worth giving it the attention it is due. For while John does not make Jesus’ kingship an important theme before this incident, it is there, and it becomes central when Jesus stands before Pilate. In John 1:49 Nathanael confesses, “Rabbi, You are the Son of God; You are the King of Israel,” but as 6:15 insinuates, when the crowd intended to take Jesus by force and make Him king, His kingship was something still hidden. If only those who are born from above (or born again) can see the “kingdom of God,” and only those born of water and the Spirit can enter the same—these, 3:3 and 3:5, are the only two references to the kingdom of God in John’s gospel—presumably Jesus’ kingship is equally apocalyptic, a matter of revelation, a matter of the Holy Spirit and the human spirit. Nevertheless, in chapter 12 the crowd proclaims Him the King of Israel, the issue that Pilate brings before Him in 18:33 when he asks, “Are You the King of the Jews?” Jesus does not deny it before Pilate, but says that His kingdom “is not of this world,” otherwise His subjects would have fought for Him; rather, He says, “My kingdom is not from here.” Pilate, nevertheless, presents Him to the early morning gathering of Judeans (those Jerusalemites whom the chief priests could rouse to support their cause), “Do you wish that I release for you the King of the Jews?” And as such the soldiers mock Him (19:3). When Pilate reiterates, “Behold, your King!” and asks the same crowd, “Shall I crucify your King?” it is this appellation that the crowd denies when it retorts, “We have no king but Caesar.” The last mention of Jesus’ kingship in John’s gospel is when Pilate has the inscription published on the cross above Jesus’ head, “Jesus the Nazarene, the King of the Jews,” and the chief priests request that it be changed to, “He said, ‘I am King of the Jews.’” Pilate answers, “What I have written I have written.”

So, while the theme of Jesus’ kingship is not as pervasive in John’s gospel as more overtly spiritual themes, it is nevertheless prominent—more so in His trial before Pilate than in the synoptic gospels—and should not be overlooked. (The synoptic place far more emphasis on the kingdom of God, or, in Matthew’s gospel, the kingdom of the heavens.) I would venture that the theme of Jesus’ kingship in John’s gospel is closely related to the idea of Jesus as Victor, as a Warrior who goes forth to the cross to conquer and overcome. In the Gethsemane scene Jesus “goes forth” to those who come to arrest Him and presents Himself with the proclamation, “I AM,” and they all “drew back and fell to the ground. Then He commands them to release His disciples. His whole demeanor from here on has nothing of the victim to it. He goes forth to battle on His own initiative. He lays down His soul—it is not taken from Him (10:18)—and overcomes the world (16:33) as the ruler of this world is cast out (12:31).

Mary anoints Jesus as King as He enters the royal City to do battle there for the sake of the world. It is His throne in Jerusalem, and He will win it, rising victorious on Easter morning. Indeed, Mary anointed Him, “observing it for the day of My burial.”


His victory as this Warrior-King is revealed in His resurrection, and Mary anoints Jesus in view of that, although she is not aware of this (no one is), except on an intuitive level. She anoints Him for burial for there shall be no time to do so later. This connection is made by the mention of Lazarus at both the beginning and end of the story: in 12:1-2, “Jesus came to Bethany where Lazarus was, whom Jesus had raised from the dead,” and when Jesus reclined at the table, “Lazarus was one of those reclining at the table with Him”; and again in 12:9-11, which recounts that a large crowd of Judeans learned that He was there and came “that they might also see Lazarus, whom He raised from the dead,” whom the chief priests also wanted to kill because on his account many Judeans were “going away and believing into Jesus.” Furthermore, along with the site and the presence of Lazarus, Martha was serving and Mary was at the feet of Jesus (see John 11:32; compare Luke 10:38-42), unmistakable reminders of the raising of Lazarus in chapter 11, when Jesus proclaimed, “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes into Me will live even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believes into Me will never die” (11:25-26).

John emphasizes the association of Mary’s anointing of Jesus “for the day of My burial” with the theme of resurrection by connecting the story at both the beginning and end to the story of Lazarus. The resurrection of Lazarus is a preview of the fruit of Jesus’ own resurrection. He apparently rises alone on Easter morning but His resurrection as the firstborn of all creation (Colossians 1:15, 18) anticipates the resurrection of all things. He breathes the Spirit into His disciples (John 20:22) and already they are participating in His resurrection, born again as the children of God (1:12-13).

Mary anoints Jesus and “the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.” In 2 Corinthians 2:14-16 Paul uses the image of a king returning victorious from battle and speaks of a similar aroma: “Thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumph in Christ, and manifests through us the sweet aroma of the knowledge of Him in every place. For we are a fragrance of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing [think of Judas]; to the one an aroma from death to death, to the other an aroma from life to life” (in 1:21-22 he spoke of the Spirit anointing us). It is the power of His resurrection in us that is the “fragrance of Christ to God.” Our aroma is the evidence of His victory.

But we do not simply have this aroma. We have this aroma when our very costly perfume of pure nard is poured out on the feet of Jesus and when we wipe His feet with our hair. Not only is Jesus’ kingship in view here but also priesthood, a priesthood in which we also are involved. He is the High Priest who offers Himself as the sacrifice to God on our behalf; but we also are worshipers, priests who also offer sacrifice, the sacrifice of love.


Kingship is only one theme, and in John’s gospel it is not even the primary one. What is on the face of this story is a Man and a woman. “Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus” (11:5), and when Jesus came to Bethany in chapter 11, when Martha (always the more “grown up” of the sisters) “went away and called Mary her sister, saying secretly, ‘The Teacher is here and is calling for you,” Mary gets up quickly (present tense) and comes to Jesus; and when she saw Him, she falls at His feet (which Martha, the more dignified one, did not do). When Jesus saw Mary weeping, and the Judeans who came with her also weeping, He was deeply moved in spirit and was troubled (11:33). There is an unmistakable sense of intimacy. Moreover, when Mary anoints Jesus, she anoints Him with nard, known for its aphrodisiac qualities (in the Song of Solomon it’s wetness and aroma suggests a woman’s sexual arousal; see 1:12 and 4:13-14), and she anoints His feet (as in Luke 7:38, though there it is preceded by the woman washing His feet with her tears; in Matthew and Mark it is Jesus’ head that Mary anoints), which in the Old Testament is a euphemism for the male genitals (I am not suggesting that Mary did anything otherwise than what the story literally says, only that her actions are suggestive). If we face it, it is not hard to see why some people might have been scandalized.

For John, however, this erotic undertone is not isolated to this one incident. It is also suggested by the mandalic structure of the gospel (formed by its two intersecting chiasmic sequences). With 6:16-21 being the unitary center (the first day of creation), we step outward in four directions, and by the time we reach the sixth layer (corresponding to the sixth day of creation, when God created the man and the woman), we come to the four stories in which a woman plays a primary part: Mary the mother of Jesus at the wedding in Cana on one end of the gospel corresponding to Mary of Magdala embracing Jesus at the tomb on the other end; and then, between them, the thirsty woman at Jacob’s well in Samaria corresponding to Mary anointing Jesus in Bethany (2:1-12; 20:1-18; and 4:4-42; 12:1-12). Nuptial joy is central to the first story (2:1-12; see also 3:29) connected as it is to the water which fills the seven pots to the top and becomes wine. Water is also central to the story in chapter 4, the water that leaves the woman thirsty (verse 13) and the living water within that becomes a well of water springing up into eternal life. But the nuptial theme is not absent there. The woman has had five husbands and the man whom she now has is not her husband. Moreover, the well to which she came to draw water is Jacob’s well in Sychar, the place where Jacob met his sweetheart Rachel (Genesis 29). The satisfaction that Jesus offers to the woman of Samaria is an answer to her longing (her thirst), and I do not think it would be terribly speculative to say that her longing was for love, and the union of love, an end to her isolation.

When we cross over the center of the gospel, the stories correspond to—and fulfill—the earlier ones. The woman of Samaria is thirsty and asks Jesus to give her the living water that will satisfy her thirst. Mary of Bethany’s liquid is not water but the sensual oil of perfume. Moreover, she does not ask to receive from Him to satisfy herself at no cost but instead, at great cost to herself, she pours out her oil on Jesus, for His satisfaction; the oil, the fragrance of which is released when the bride enters the presence of the reclining king in 1:14 of the Song of Solomon, and the garden of which she unlocks for the king on the night of their wedding in 4:12-16. Jesus finds Mary of Magdala in the garden on Easter morning, suggestive of Adam finding Eve in the garden after he was put to sleep and a rib was taken from his side (as Jesus fell asleep in death and blood and water issued from his pierced side, only in John 19:34). Though the men (Peter and John) had come to the empty tomb, Jesus remained hidden from them while He waited for Mary to return. In the Song of Solomon, in 3:1-2 the bride sought him whom her soul loved, and when she found him in verse 4 she “held on to him and would not let him go.” She loses him again in 5:2-8, and when she finds him in 6:1-3, the harem asks her, “Where has your beloved gone, O most beautiful among women? Where has your beloved turned, that we may seek him with you?” and she answers, “My beloved has gone down to his garden, to the beds of balsam, to pasture his flock in the gardens and gather lilies. I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine, he pastures his flock among the lilies,” very suggestive of sexual union in which what she pays attention to is her lover’s satisfaction more than her own. In the garden scene in John 20 Mary is weeping, looking for the One Whom her soul loves, “because they have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid Him.” When Jesus pronounces her name, “Mary!” and she recognizes Him, she turns, saying “Rabboni!” (the intimate “my rabbi,” just as earlier she had said “my Lord”) and embraces Him. “Stop holding onto Me,” Jesus says to her, “for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to My siblings and say to them, ‘I ascend to My Father and your Father, and My God and your God.’” Presumably her intimate union with Him is fulfilled when He ascends into heaven soon after seeing her and breathes the Holy Spirit into His disciples (presumably she is among them). Adam says, “This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called woman because she was taken out of man.” For this reason, the author of Genesis tells us, a man shall be joined to his wife; and they shall become one flesh. By allusion, John 20 takes us back to the wedding of Cana in chapter 2, the story that corresponds to it in the gospel’s mandalic cruciform structure.

 The love that Mary expresses in chapter 12, therefore has erotic undertones, but it is a spiritual rather than a biological eroticism, for it is the longing for spiritual union with Jesus, our participation in His union of the creature and the divine in His own Person, and therefore the union of our person with His Person. It is certainly not in contrast to sexual union, but is rather the mystery of it, the deeper reality that makes sexual union so special, that makes it what it is. But while sexual union can be a sacrament of our union with Jesus, our union with Jesus is not tied down to sexual union as if it only occurs then or occurs then in a superior way. Sexual union is simply an effectual sign of it; being given as a sign whenever it occurs but becoming effectual only through faith, that is, when its deeper reality is known (i.e., the union of the creature and the divine, however it is truly known, that is, when it is not subverted by idolatry). Mary’s act, therefore, is unabashedly an act of love, though it is spiritual and has nothing of the insecure grasping and possessiveness typical of sexual love.

What it has is an unrestrained sense of giving. She gives, once and for all, the expensive perfume, at great cost to herself, but in doing so she gives herself. She kneels or lays at Jesus’ feet, pouring oil on them and wiping them with her hair, both being a gesture of love and humility. The oil with which she anoints His feet expresses the pouring out of her heart to Him, of her soul, in love and devotion. She gives Him her worship, and therefore, though the word is not used and the form is irregular, what she offers to Him is sacrifice. Oil was part of the grain offering sacrifice (Leviticus 2), along with frankincense, and when it was burned and offered up in smoke as a memorial portion on the altar, it was an offering by fire of a soothing aroma to YHWH. Oil, usually olive oil, symbolizes the Holy Spirit throughout the Scriptures, and the grain of the grain offering symbolizes the humanity of Christ. Through the Holy Spirit we offer to God the aroma of Christ. It is this which we offer when we offer ourselves, the fruit of the Spirit. We can offer ourselves as living sacrifices only because we offer ourselves as alive from the dead, that is, as alive in Christ (Romans 12:1; 6:13; see 6:11). In any case, Mary’s offering is such a sacrifice; it is an act of worship in which she is giving to Jesus herself, not by a “good work” but simply in love and devotion to Him.

All our good works, because they may simply be serving the age of this world, can mean nothing. They may simply be part of the human enterprise in which we strive to justify our vain existence. What connects our actions to reality instead of to the delusion that is the world is this kind of sacrifice. It is a memorial sacrifice (Mary did it in observance of His burial), and a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving to His beloved Person. Primarily, however, it is love, not the human-conceived love that we show to one another when we “try” to love, but the love that is innate to our nature that expresses it most freely when it is this pouring out of ourselves on Him, the melting of our hearts at His feet, kissing His feet in devotion, and wiping the ointment that we have poured out on His feet with the hair of our head (hair is a symbol of glory, honor and strength: remember the Nazarites, Samson, and 1 Corinthians 11:1-16 correctly translated, where “not even nature herself teaches you that if a man has long hair it is a dishonor to him, and if a woman has long hair it is a glory to her”). The right kind of sacrifice dissolves the false construction of our soul, its imprisonment to its delusion, and connects us to reality; it grounds us in our true createdness and in the gift of its divinization in Jesus.

The meaning of her act is chiefly love. The mystery of sacrifice is love. The oil of her perfume suggests that it is the Holy Spirit reaching out and pouring itself out on Jesus, expressing the erotic love of the feminine Holy Spirit for the masculine Son, who is in special need of Her as He is about to take on His armor and engage in the battle of His passion. Rarely did Jesus receive actual comfort from others. Here Mary comforts Jesus, and here, in comforting Him, the Holy Spirit is comforting Him. Perhaps this is the last time the Holy Spirit makes love to Jesus before the Two of Them will give birth to the new creation on Easter Sunday (in the resurrection of His flesh and in the Spirit’s indwelling the disciples as a seal and foretaste of what is to come in their own resurrection; see John 16:20-22).

The House Was Filled with the Fragrance of the Perfume

Mary’s offering or sacrifice is not hers alone, or it is not meant to be. It is supposed to be a picture of the offering of the church. It is true, even in the picture that the story presents to us, that it is only one among the many who makes this offering. In fact, none of the men do. They are confused by it, and none of them see its worth or value, and some even reject it. Christianity has become a world religion like every other, casting even a darker shadow for its proximity to the light, but in this steaming morass one can still find pearls and nuggets of gold. What Mary offers is the truth of the church in the midst of so much falsehood, and the reason for its continuing and growing existence. In spite of the presence of Christianity as a world religion, the aroma of Mary’s sacrifice fills the global oikoumenē (the inhabited earth; oikos in Greek is house) with the scent of the resurrection. Sometimes, in spite of the craziness of religions and how they manifest themselves socially, others can detect this rare aroma as something authentic, something that speaks to them, something that speaks to their original self.

The aroma fills the house. In subconscious typology the house first of all is our own being, our interior, the house of our soul. The spiritual aroma of one’s offering fills one’s own soul with the fragrance of the Holy Spirit, the fragrance of the resurrection (Jesus’ resurrection, and our future resurrection). The aroma of sacrifice does this much, and with the nose of spirit, one can detect its scent.

Others also can. One can sometimes sense in this individual the presence of life, of a life that overcomes death. Perhaps one senses by her or his presence the Presence of the divine. Such individuals have suffered; their constructed (false) soul has broken, and the treasure that is released, is something that seems to be more than themselves (see 2 Corinthians 4:6-12). May it become so of us.

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