The following article is an excerpt from Jesus: A Theography (Leonard Sweet & Frank Viola, Thomas Nelson, 424 pages, hardcover). The excerpt was published in Life Today with James Robison and Rick Warren’s Pastor’s Toolbox Newsletter.
“She did what she could. She poured perfume on my body beforehand to prepare for my burial. I tell you the truth, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.”
~ Mark 14:8-9
We tend to forget that crucifixion was the ultimate form of torture. The science of exquisite torture has never been equaled, much less exceeded, than in crucifixion. The crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth was no exception. Crucifixion was more than an ugliness blotted out by Easter, more than a speed bump on the road to resurrection.
Part of the cruelty of crucifixion was the emotional as well as physical torture.
There is no odor so bad
as that which arises
from goodness tainted.
—Henry David Thoreau
Yes, Jesus’ physical agonies were beyond imagining. But the emotional agonies were even worse—the humiliation of being stripped naked, with all bodily parts and functions exposed for the humiliating gaze of the public; the mixture of blood and sweat and urine and feces and refuse creating a nauseating stench, the smells of death that kept even the families of the crucified at a distance.
But what cut even deeper were the emotional agonies of Jesus’ spirit. The Bible unabashedly testifies to Jesus’ sense of total abandonment, defeat, rejection, and betrayal. In many ways, this was where Jesus was really crucified in spirit. Not on the cross but in the kiss. The cross crucified Him in body. The kiss crucified Him in soul. He was truly despised and rejected, a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief.
Jesus was really betrayed twice, first by the kiss of Judas, then by something that cut even deeper: the kiss-off of Peter. The disciple who stuck with Jesus the longest after Jesus’ arrest, when accosted by a servant girl in the courtyard of the high priest, denied he knew Him. Before the barnyard cock crowed, the second betrayal took place.
Of Jesus’ closest friends, one denied Him, all betrayed Him, and, save John, all ran away.
Now do you know why Jesus said to remember “her” (the woman who anointed His head with fragrant ointment)?
In the praetorium at Pilate’s residence, the soldiers dressed Jesus in royal clothes, like some play doll. They draped over Him a scarlet robe, stuck a reed in His hands to mock a scepter, and then used that instrument to bludgeon Jesus on the head.
They beat Jesus’ head with their hands, fracturing His nasal bones. They took turns spitting into the contusions of his blindfolded face and knelt before Him and taunted, “Hail, King of the Jews.” Then they crushed onto His head that crown of thorns.
With blood, spit, and sweat running down His face, Jesus looked around. Where were His disciples? Where were all His faithful followers? Where were all those whom He had healed? Where were all those whose eyes He had opened, whose ears He had unstopped, whose mouths He had opened, whose limbs He had restored?
It was almost more than He could bear.
Then Jesus smelled the perfume…and He remembered the woman with the hemorrhage of twelve years who’d had the faith to reach out and touch the hem of His garment and be healed.
Jesus kept on.
And when the soldiers beat Him with a whip until the blood ran down His back like a waterfall, His skin already supersensitive from the effects of hematidrosis (sweating blood); when they marched Him 650 yards through the streets and made Him climb the Via Dolorosa, carrying the 150-pound patibulum on which His wrists were later to be nailed, reducing Him to a beast of burden being led to the slaughterhouse; and when the weight of the cross produced contusions on the right shoulder and back on that three-hour walk through the city of Jerusalem to Golgotha on the Way of the Cross—Jesus smelled the perfume.
And when He fell, causing more unnamed injuries; when He looked around for His most intimate friends, His disciples, and saw none but the four women and John at a distance; and when the agony was almost too much to bear—He smelled the perfume.
And He remembered the twelve-year-old daughter of Jairus, whom everyone thought was dead but whom God healed when He spoke these words: “Get up, My child.”
Jesus kept on.
And when they stripped Him naked and nailed Him to the crosspiece He had carried; when they took those six-inch spikes and lacerated the median nerves in His hands and feet; and when they lifted Him up on that cross, above the sinking garbage heap called Golgotha—Jesus smelled the perfume. And He remembered the Syrophoenician woman and her daughter and the Galilean official and his son.
He kept on.
And when everyone who passed by mocked Him on the cross; when the chief priests and scribes, even those thieves who were crucified with Him, taunted and teased Him in His agony; and when the loneliness became so severe He was about ready to call ten thousand angels to rescue Him, Jesus looked around. In the haze of hurt, He barely could make out the figures of the three Marys—His mother, Mary; His aunt Mary (wife of Cleopas); and Mary Magdalene—and then He smelled the perfume.
And He remembered the many children brought to Him by their mothers, children who jumped into His arms and lapped up His stories.
Jesus kept on.
And when His body, already in shock, hung from the wrists; and when He struggled for breath to chant two of His favorite psalms (31 and 22), unable to expel even small hiccups of sound without straightening His knees and raising Himself on the fulcrum of His nailed feet, the only thing the soldiers offered His parched throat (“I thirst!”) so He could keep singing was a drink of vinegar, which only made singing more difficult. And when His crucifiers used Him for entertainment (“Let’s see if He can call down the angels”) and when He searched the landscape for signs of love and faithfulness and saw He was abandoned by virtually everyone He ever loved, leading Him to cry a prayer for His disciples as well as for those who crucified Him—then Jesus smelled the perfume.
And He remembered the woman who had given all she had so He would remember God’s love for Him, and in that smell He could even detect the odors that reminded Him that He was going home, from whence He had come.
He kept on.
The cross was the only footbridge that could get us across the chasm of sin into the true Promised Land. And that perfume kept Jesus on the cross.
The greatest honor a person can give anyone is to tell his or her story. Here was someone who “did what she could” (literally, “She used what she had”). She gave all that she had. Love.
Now we know why Jesus said, “When you remember Me, remember her.”
Excerpted from Jesus: A Theography by Leonard Sweet and Frank Viola. Thomas Nelson © 2012. Used by permission of Thomas Nelson, Inc. thomasnelson.com. The book goes into more detail and tells the rest of the story.