“And the house was filled with the odour of the ointment.” – John 12:8
It was at Bethany six days before the Last Supper. There, at the home of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, they made a supper for the Lord. Lazarus, who had been raised from the dead, was present at the table with them. Martha served, but Mary took a pound of very precious ointment “and anointed the feet of Jesus, and wiped his feet with her hair: and the house was filled with the odour of the ointment.” In anointing the Lord’s feet Mary was expressing her gratitude for her brother’s restoration to temporal life.
The custom of anointing is of great antiquity. It represents consecration. The most costly aromatics were mixed with the anointing oil to represent the grateful perception of happiness which flows from pure love.
The raising of Lazarus represents the restoration of the soul to spiritual life. Mary is a type of spiritual love, the sister to the natural love represented by Martha.
Mary anointed the Lord’s feet. By feet is meant the natural, the feet of the Lord the Divine Natural, and in general all the natural affections: our affection for our children, for our friends, and for the common uses of life. By anointing the feet of the Lord is meant bringing the Divine Love into every external act, making our whole life worship, anointing with the holy oil of love all our daily duties, our natural affections, and our common employments.
And Mary wiped the Lord’s feet with her hair. We recall that Samson’s superhuman strength was in his hair. It was a symbol of the humanity which the Lord assumed as the medium by which His Divine power was brought down into the natural world, for the deliverance of mankind. Thus Mary’s wiping the Lord’s feet with her hair is the expression of her love in ultimates, in its beauty and glory.
Judas thought that this was a waste of the ointment, but the Lord replied, “Let her alone: against the day of my burying hath she kept this.” By day is meant state and by burying resurrection, inauguration into spiritual life. Whenever we do a natural act from pure love it becomes spiritual; it becomes a heavenly good.
The fragrance of the ointment filled the house. The house is the man himself, his mind and in a more extended sense his family, society, church, country. We should bring the life of heavenly affections into the whole circle of our common duties; we should strive to make every act, even the most trivial, the outbirth of affection and the instrument of use. Then we shall consecrate everything and make it holy; we shall elevate it from a mere natural and fleeting use to one that is spiritual and eternal.
Our text is of deepest interest to all who desire to live truly useful lives. The idea is very widespread that the ordinary duties of life are not favorable to our highest developments of character. So much of our time seems to be wasted in supplying the ever-recurring wants of the body. We seem to accomplish nothing. We feel that we could do much if only we had the leisure. Day after day, month after month we go through the same cycle of work, and thus life passes, and when the month or the year has completed its cycle, we seem to be just where we commenced. Who has not felt so?
And again there is the feeling that the time and strength that we have devoted to temporal things is so much subtracted from the spiritual and eternal. The consequence is that we perform the greater part of our duties as slaves; they are task-work imposed upon us by the hardest of task-masters, necessity; and what is still worse, we deprive ourselves of that strength which we most need, the strength of high motives and purposes.
It is this feeling that has led many to seek a life of seclusion, contemplation, and prayer. But this is founded on a false idea of religion, of the real nature of natural duties, and of the design of infinite wisdom in making them necessities.
We are planted in the midst of these cares, as seed is planted in the ground, and for the same reason: that we may come in contact with and gain access to the very materials necessary to our growth. There is a correspondence between the natural and the spiritual; this means that all causes are spiritual.
Our life is rooted in natural things – not to be dead and buried beneath them, but to grow up out of them and to be rendered stable and permanent by them. The seed cannot grow unless it is planted, neither can truth unless it is carried out into act. One may grieve over imaginary woes, and indulge in idle fancies concerning what he would do if he were not bound down to the earth by burdens and cares. But there is no goodness in such thoughts and day-dreams; they never bear any fruit.
Sometimes, indeed, we enslave ourselves unnecessarily. Vanity, pride, ambition, and envy impose burdens upon us and divert us from the proper use of our time and energies, but this does not invalidate the principle.
If the Creator in His wisdom had seen fit, He could have so formed us and the world that all our natural needs would be supplied without effort on our part. But He has so formed us and has placed us in such circumstances that labor is required to meet these needs. They were not inflicted upon us as a punishment, but were made conditions of our being, that they might become the means of developing a higher life. Every natural use is designed to be the basis of a spiritual use, which is to be rooted in it and to grow out of it, and to make our services to the individual, the family, society, and the community of nations the embodiment of spiritual affections.
The ancients write of a search for a philosopher’s stone which would turn base metals into gold. There is such a stone. It is the truth of unselfish love. Most of our time is necessarily occupied with duties which seem temporary, but they are the materials for the development of character. There is no useful employment that does not afford the means for the development of the virtues. There is at all times an occasion for truthfulness and fidelity. There is the constant opportunity for the exercise of kindness, self-denial, obedience, and loyalty.
There is no virtue that is not called into requisition in the family circle. There innocence, forbearance, justice, unselfish affection find the most favorable ground for development. These opportunities are not, however, confined to domestic life. Each family is linked to others. We have social duties of a more general nature which call forth their particular virtues. And then, of course, there is our business life. Every field of activity should be anointed with the love of use.
It is only as we look to ourselves in our relations to others that all our employments become slavery. Our domestic relations become cares and anxieties, our daily employments tasks imposed upon us by necessity, and we seek to avoid them as much as possible. It is for this reason that so many try to gain the reward without performing the labor, and that he who receives the most for the least labor is considered the most fortunate. All such gains will in time turn to dust.
But he who performs his duties from the love of being useful changes them from cares and anxieties and slavish toil into strength, virtue, and rest. Life is activity. Idleness is death. If we love to be useful and perform our duties from the love of use, we shall receive the strength, the peace, and the happiness that come from such a life – our house will be filled with the odor of the ointment.
As Mary anointed the feet of the Lord with the most precious ointment, so let us carry the sphere of the unselfish love of use into all our natural activities, and then, however trivial and common they may be in themselves, they will become forms of beauty, which will diffuse their fragrance through the whole circle of our influence.