In 1905 the American author who went by the pen name O. Henry published a short story called The Gift of the Magi. Perhaps you’re familiar with the story. A young couple, Della and Jim, were barely eking out their existence. Jim used to make $30 a week but now his pay was down to $20.
On Christmas Eve, Della is desperate to give Jim a present that expresses her great love for him. She’s been saving all year, penny-by-penny, yet all she’s come up with is $1.87. Even all that time ago, $1.87 won’t get you very much—certainly not a gift that could adequately express her great love for her husband.
While they were poor, Della and Jim each had something of great value. Jim had a gold watch he had inherited from his father, who had received it from his father. Della had gorgeous brown hair that fell all the way to her knees.
To use O. Henry’s words, “If a queen had lived in rooms near theirs, Della would have washed and dried her hair where the queen could see it. Della knew her hair was more beautiful than any queen’s jewels and gifts. If a king had lived in the same house, with all his riches, Jim would have looked at his watch every time they met. Jim knew that no king had anything so valuable.”
While Jim was at work, Della fretted around their small home about what she could buy Jim to show her great love. $1.87 just wasn’t going to get her anything. So, Della put on her old coat and hat and headed to a store bearing this sign, “Hair Articles of all Kinds.” “Will you buy my hair?” Della asks and receives $20 for her beautiful locks, a month’s wages for Jim. Della leaves the shop with a pixie cut and $21.87 in her pocket. She does her window shopping and finally stops at a store with a gold watch chain. A perfect complement to Jim’s priceless watch. She paid $21 for it and hurried home with the chain and 87 cents left.
At home, Della looked at herself in the mirror. She cried at the state of her hair. As O. Henry put it, “Love and large-hearted giving, when added together, can leave deep marks.” Having put herself back together, she makes dinner and waits for her beloved’s return.
Jim walks in and sees his wife. He’s quiet.
Della runs to him, “Jim, dear, don’t look at me like that….My hair will grow again.” Jim isn’t angry, but he is wrapping his mind around what has happened.
They embrace, but they aren’t sure what to do next. Finally, Jim pulls a package from his coat. Inside were beautiful combs that Jim had bought for Della. She had eyed them in the shop window for a long time, and he wanted to show his love by giving them to her.
She handed Jim her gift. Inside was the beautiful gold chain for his priceless watch.
“Della,” Jim said, “let’s put our Christmas gifts away and keep them a while. They’re too nice to use now. I sold the watch to get the money to buy the combs.”
O. Henry concludes the beautiful and sad story this way, “The magi, as you know, were wise men—wonderfully wise men—who brought gifts to the newborn Christ-child. They were the first to give Christmas gifts. Being wise, their gifts were doubtless wise ones. And here I have told you the story of two children who were not wise. Each sold the most valuable thing he owned in order to buy a gift for the other. But let me speak a last word to the wise of these days: Of all who give gifts, these two were the most wise. Of all who give and receive gifts, such are the most wise. Everywhere they are the wise ones. They are the magi.”
Della and Jim gave to each other with a full abandon that reflected the great love they shared. It’s a foolish love, but it’s a love that would do the same over and over again. O. Henry is saying that kind of love is the wisest of all. It’s a love that doesn’t count the cost. It’s a love that gives without expecting to receive.
It’s the kind of love we see on display in our gospel text, where Mary shows her great love for Jesus, not caring in the least for the extravagance of her love.
Pastor William Carter observed how this is true about many things we do inside and outside of worship. “Lots of extravagant gifts are put into the air, where they soon evaporate. A church choir labors to prepare an intricate anthem, and three minutes later it is gone. The teacher prepares the lesson, stands to deliver, and then class is adjourned. Mourners provide large arrangements of flowers to honor those whom they grieve. Saints donate large sums of money for their congregation to spend. Why do they do this? Love has its reasons.”
Love has its reasons. I love that. Love has its reasons, but that doesn’t mean that love is reasonable. Rather, I think love often goes far beyond reason, just like faith does. Let’s enter our text to see how this plays out so clearly in Mary’s actions towards her friend and Lord, Jesus.
It’s always worth putting the story within its larger setting. In John’s gospel, this follows just after Jesus has raised Mary and Martha’s brother, Lazarus, from the dead. It’s a stunning and pivotal sign in John, the final sign before Jesus’ own death and resurrection in the coming days.
If this were a Marvel movie plot, we’d be just on the edge of the epic final battle. The air would be charged. You’d be sitting on the edge of your seat. People know about Jesus’ miracle. It’s getting him attention—positive and negative—but especially he knows that the religious leaders are done with him. Jesus has shown the world a glimpse of what is to come, and many are not ready for it. So, Jesus withdraws to the wilderness with his disciples.
Six days before the Passover, Jesus comes back to Bethany, just outside of Jerusalem. Crowds on pilgrimage are thronging to the Holy City. Rome’s armies are active and present, reminding the people that they better keep things under control. He returns to the home of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. While at dinner, Mary does something extravagant and unexpected. She goes over to the shelf and grabs an alabaster jar. Its contents are pure nard.
What is nard? “Nard was a rare and precious spice imported from northern India….Nard is a shrub whose leaves and ‘shoots’ were harvested and taken by caravan to the west. Sometimes it was mixed with its own root to increase its weight. Note that Mary’s gift is called ‘pure’ nard, meaning it had no additives. Nard smelled like gladiolus perfume and had a red color. It could be used in a variety of ways,” including anointing the dead. To open the bottle, Mary had to break the seal. Just like uncorking a bottle of wine starts the clock ticking on its life, the same would go with nard.
Why would Mary do this? Love has its reasons, even if love is often unreasonable.
Mary has anointed Jesus’ feet and wiped them with her hair. Looking backwards, we could see this as an act of gratitude. Jesus has given her brother life again. But in anointing his feet, rather than his head, Mary is also looking forwards. It’s an act of preparation. She’s preparing his body for burial, days before this would become a reality.
The act itself is extravagant, but it’s not a huge act. This is no flash mob. It’s intimate. It’s familiar. But it’s this small but deep expression of love and grief that participates in the much larger thing that God is doing in Christ.
Judas takes offense at this unreasonable act. What a waste, he says. But Mary doesn’t care what Judas—or others—think. She does the unreasonable. She shows her full abandon into the love she has for Jesus. She breaks a jar to fill the room with its aroma. She breaks boundaries as a single woman touching an adult man. She breaks social protocol to show great love, filling the space with the aroma of that love, inviting all to experience that same beauty.
If Mary were here to do the same today—right here in this sanctuary—how would we respond as we smelled the aroma of love and felt the grief of her tears?
Would her full abandon in loving Jesus feel undignified?
Would we think, “That’s just too much. Pull it together!”
Would we see ourselves in her love that goes beyond reason?
Would we think Mary among the wise ones?
There is a beauty in uncalculating love. Mary’s act shows us that this kind of love is a mark of discipleship, of learning from and being with Jesus as our friend and Savior.
As we draw near to Easter, let us draw near with a depth of love that is unreasonable. Like Mary, let us give of ourselves with full abandon to the One who gave all of himself with full abandon out of love for the whole world.