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Friends, in today’s Gospel, Mary of Bethany anoints Jesus’ feet with perfumed oil, preparing him for burial.

This gesture—wasting something as expensive as an entire jar of perfume—is sniffed at by Judas, who complains that, at the very least, the nard could have been sold and the money given to the poor.

Why does John use this tale to preface his telling of the Passion? Why does he allow the odor of this woman’s perfume to waft, as it were, over the whole of the story? It is because, I believe, this extravagant gesture shows forth the meaning of what Jesus is about to do: the absolutely radical giving away of self. 

There is nothing calculating, careful, or conservative about the woman’s action. Flowing from the deepest place in the heart, religion resists the strictures set for it by a fussily moralizing reason (on full display in those who complain about the woman’s extravagance). At the climax of his life, Jesus will give himself away totally, lavishly, unreasonably—and this is why Mary’s beautiful gesture is a sort of overture to the opera that will follow.