Public Display of Affection

Frederick Sandys, Mary Magalene (ca. 1858-60), oil on wood panel, 13.25 x 11 in., Delaware Art Museum

In the musical My Fair Lady Eliza sings to her young suitor Freddie: Words! Words! Words! I’m so sick of words! . . . If you’re in love, show me! In John 12:1-8, the story of Jesus’ anointing, one woman shows her love for the Savior, not with words but with an outrageous public display of affection. It is the most intimate contact between Jesus and a woman recorded in the Bible.

There are parallel accounts in Matthew 26:6-13, Mark 14:3-9, and (possibly) Luke 7:36-50. John is the only evangelist to identify the woman as Mary of Bethany, sister of Lazarus, whom Jesus raised from the dead. Luke says it was a sinful “woman of the city”—a prostitute. Later tradition identified the fallen woman as Mary Magdalene, adding to the confusion. All three synoptic gospels—Matthew, Mark, and Luke—say the event took place in the house of a man named Simon. John agrees with Matthew and Mark (but not Luke) that it happened in Bethany. Whereas Luke associates the woman’s actions with Middle Eastern hospitality rituals (foot washing, anointing, kissing), John and the other two gospels interpret the anointing as preparation for Jesus’ burial. (John heightens the awareness of death looming nearby by having Lazarus as a silent observer.) Although some of the details differ, the stories are quite similar. There may have been two anointings, one recorded in Luke, the other in Matthew, Mark, and John.  However, it’s more likely that there was an oral tradition based on one historical event, which each evangelist used for his own rhetorical purpose.

In John’s account Mary “took a pound of spikenard, very precious, and anointed the feet of Jesus, and wiped his feet with her hair: and the house was filled with the odour of the ointment” (3). It was indeed an outrageous act, both culturally and economically. Respectable women did not let down their hair in public, much less rub it on men’s feet, and the cost of a pound (ca. 12 oz.) of the perfumed ointment was about the same as a year’s wages for an agricultural worker. John has Judas object to the expense, asking whether it should have been sold instead and the money used for the poor (5). Jesus justifies the woman’s act, saying she did it to prepare him for burial. The unguent used came from spikenard, a flowering plant that grows in the Himalayan Mountains of China, India, and Nepal. It has an earthy, organic smell. Think musk, not Chanel No. 5. According to Bulfinch’s Mythology, the Roman poet Ovid tells how the Phoenix, a mythical bird famous for its regenerative ability, piled up cinnamon, spikenard, and myrrh, then lay down upon the spice heap to die. Out of its corpse a young bird would miraculously spring forth. Thus, spikenard was associated not only with death but also new life. It was an appropriate preparation for the one who would die and rise again.

The story of Jesus’ anointing is a sensual one. Mary gets down in front of Jesus. The stone floor is cold and gritty on her hands and knees. She picks up his calloused, dusty feet and begins to caress them. She dribbles the oily perfume on them, allowing it to run down her arms and drip off her elbows. The room is filled with a strong, pungent odor. It immediately reminds those present of funerals. Everyone looks on astonished, shocked by the scene. But Jesus has a gleam in his eye. Smiling, he gazes down at Mary. She lifts her head. Their eyes meet. They look like a couple in love. And so they were. Not with a gooey, romantic kind of love, but a deep concern and affection for each other.

Unlike Mary, I tend to be reserved when it comes to showing how I feel. I don’t like to draw attention to myself or do anything to make a scene. But if you love someone, really love them, it’s bound to show. Mary’s extravagant public display of affection, the way she lavished her attention and care on Jesus, makes my half-hearted devotion pale by comparison. I can almost hear him singing, If you’re in love, show me!


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