We all know what it’s like to walk or drive past a truly foul smell. Whether it’s a garbage heap, a dead skunk, or a backed-up sewer, our first instinct is to get away from it as quickly as possible. We also know how the smell of bread baking or a bouquet of fresh flowers draws us in. We take a deep breath and savor the aroma.
Well, imagine what it must have been like at the place where the woman anointed Jesus. John’s Gospel tells us that “the house was filled with the fragrance” of the perfume (John 12:3). On one level, this isn’t very surprising. After all, it wasn’t just the few drops that you normally use when putting on perfume. It was the entire jar! So with that sweet aroma filling the whole house, you can imagine everyone breathing deeply, savoring the fragrance, and maybe even relaxing—if only for just a moment.
But on another level, something else was happening. The physical aroma of the perfume matched the spiritual aroma of holiness that came from the woman’s action. That special aroma was the combination of her love for Jesus and God’s love for her. Her act of love and devotion made such an impact on the spiritual environment of the house that Jesus promised that her story would be told “wherever thi gospel is proclaimed” (Matthew 26:13).
Keeping these thoughts in mind, let’s see what this story can teach us about how we can spread the aroma of God’s love to the people around us.
Devotion and Sacrifice. Jesus told the disciples that this woman had done “a good thing” for him (Mark 14:6). Other translations make this difference even starker by having Jesus say, “She has done a beautiful thing for me.” Jesus didn’t say this out of pride or vanity. He considered her act beautiful because it revealed the same kind of passion that was moving in his own heart.
No one told Jesus to die for our sins. No one forced him to do it. It’s something he chose to do out of love for us. In other words, Jesus did a “beautiful thing” for us.
Similarly, no one told the woman to anoint Jesus. No one forced her to do it. It was just something she wanted to do—to show Jesus how much she loved him. That’s what made it beautiful!
Jesus said a similar thing about a poor widow who gave her last two coins to the Temple treasury (Luke 21:1-4). Her donation was not nearly as expensive as the woman’s jar of perfume, but it was costly to her. Clearly, the size of the gift didn’t matter, only the extravagant love behind the gift. That’s why Jesus commended the widow, saying that she had “put in more than all the rest” (21:3).
Jesus values every gift we give when the gift includes sacrificial love. It’s not the cost of the gift or the amount of money that matters; it’s the amount of the sacrifice. When he told his apostles, “Leave her alone,” he was speaking to us as well (Mark 14:6). He was asking us to “let alone” that part of us that wants to be with him and pay homage. Don’t let that part of your heart get cluttered up with distractions—good and bad—that chew up your time, your energy, and your love for God. If you want to bring joy to Jesus, “waste” the valuable perfume that is in the jar of your heart on him. He will honor your sacrifice, just as he honored the woman’s.
Comingled with Jesus. The aroma that filled the house was not just coming from the woman’s perfume. It was a comingling of her devotion and Jesus’ love for her. The aroma of holiness came into the room because God infused her actions with his Holy Spirit.
Other stories make the same point. We can think of the woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years (Mark 5:25-34). When she reached out and touched Jesus’ garment, she was healed. Her faith comingled with his power to produce something filled with divine grace. Similarly, the Canaanite woman who approached Jesus on behalf of her daughter was relentless, and she was rewarded (Matthew 15:21-28). Her tenacity comingled with Jesus’ love, and the girl was delivered. Over and over, we see people coming to Jesus in faith and discovering a grace and blessing that far surpass their efforts, all because of this holy comingling.
A Sacramental Mingling. Nowhere is this comingling more evident and more dramatic than in the Eucharist. When we come to Mass with hearts focused on worship, something powerful happens. Our desire to honor Jesus and give our hearts to him is infused with the power of God. A fragrance of love, peace, and grace is released. The fragrance fills the whole church. It’s as if we were bringing our own alabaster jar to church and anointing Jesus.
We can see two specific times during Mass when this happens the most clearly. First, in the presentation of the gifts, we offer bread and wine to the Lord, the “fruit of the earth and work of human hands.” Doesn’t this resemble the jar of perfume that the woman brought to Jesus? The bread and wine, like the jar, represent our lives. They represent our faith and the fruit of our work. They represent who we are and our affection for Jesus. Then, on the altar, these gifts are transformed into the Body and Blood of Christ. That which was made by human hands is now made into something new by the grace of God. He takes our gifts and gives them a whole new “fragrance.” He imbues them with a new and deeper power to restore and refresh us. It may look like ordinary food and drink, but now it has the power to give us so much more than bodily nourishment.
The second example of comingling happens just before the bread and wine are consecrated. The celebrant pours wine into a chalice and then adds a few drops of water to mix with it. As he does, he prays, “By the mystery of this water and wine, may we come to share in the divinity of Christ who humbled himself to share in our humanity.” This highlights again the mingling of the human and the divine. It shows that God wants to join himself with us so that he can raise us up to be with him.
St. Cyprian once wrote, “In consecrating the cup of the Lord, water alone cannot be offered, even as wine alone cannot be offered. For if anyone offer wine only, the Blood of Christ is dissociated from us; but if the water be alone, the people are dissociated from Christ; but when both are mingled, and are joined with each other by a close union, there is completed a spiritual and heavenly sacrament.”
A New Atmosphere. By saying that the whole house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume, John is telling us that it was the woman’s life—her heart, her attitude of worship and surrender to the Lord—that changed the atmosphere. It wasn’t just the perfume; it was her pure heart mingled with the grace of God. Consequently, her entire life was transformed into sweet perfume, and everybody recognized it.
St. Paul once said that we are the “aroma of Christ,” an aroma “that leads to life” (2 Corinthians 2:15, 16). When we worship Jesus with all that we have and all that we are, we become the fragrance of God, just as this woman did. We are changed and transformed, just as the bread and wine are at Mass. Our desire to be with Jesus grows, and so does our desire to become more like him. And the witness of our lives has the power to change our environments, just as the woman’s perfume filled the whole house.
Be the Fragrance of God. Let’s learn from this woman. Let’s set our hearts on giving Jesus extravagant gifts of worship. Let’s make special sacrifices to him, because our sacrifices open the door for the Lord to come and fill us with his grace.
Jesus never keeps our worship and our faith for himself. He multiplies them, as he multiplied the loaves and fish, and he offers it to the people around us. Each one of us has the potential to be a sweet fragrance of God that affects everyone we meet. So let’s go out and anoint Jesus today, and every day, for the rest of our lives.