It’s Not About the Damn Perfume

I in a house with two guys who are slightly younger than me. My block is in a part of the city that has an ify reputation, but my neighbors look out for each other. Many of those neighbors are involved in a church a couple blocks away that is known for a variety of creative projects: a community garden, a daycare, a book review, and a Community Development Corporation that takes on a variety of housing initiatives throughout the neighborhood. While it is not a church I personally attend, I have a lot of respect for what they do, and I hang out with congregants from there regularly.

Last Halloween, I didn’t have plans, which is somewhat typical for me. My family hadn’t celebrated the holiday when I was growing up; instead, we were those kids who got pulled out of parties at school. At night, we would hand out candy to the other children, and slip in little New Testament tracks. Even that far back, the whole thing felt humiliating.

Well, last Halloween, it was the pastor of this local church who hosted a Halloween party a few houses down. When I walked by, they offered me chili and invited me to join them, so I did. I cooked a hot dog on the fire, drank a beer that the pastor’s wife brought me, and shared a lot of laughs. I got involved in a conversation with the pastor and a guy who is now one of my housemates. I don’t remember all the the details of our discussion, but I remember talking about the New Testament story where a woman – wasn’t she a prostitute? – broke open an expensive bottle of perfume and used it, along with her hair, to wash Jesus’s feet. As far as I can tell, two versions of this story show up in the Gospels, once in Matthew and once in Luke. The details of each account are different enough that maybe they aren’t even really the same stories. In the Matthew account, it’s the disciples who are “indignant” about the act, whereas in Luke it’s the Pharisees who get pissed at the woman.

I was surprised, though, when both of my friends kind of acted like the disciples and the Pharisee in the story. That is to say, they were suspicious. They weren’t particularly comfortable with the story, I suppose because they didn’t want it to be used to justify frivolous extravagance. At the very least, they were a little annoyed and dismissive of this woman who poured the perfume all over Jesus.

I was much more frustrated with my friends that I was with the woman. We need to be better readers. How is that even church-folk can’t see that the story isn’t about the damn perfume?! It’s about the woman. How she had lived out of lies about herself for so long and how finding this Man who would love her without using her cut straight to her heart. Moments like that are so sacred that acting “proper” really doesn’t matter anymore. So we create a symbolic act – breaking open the best perfume and mixing it with the tears that won’t stop coming because our heart feels free again, like we’re coming alive for the first time – that helps cement the whole thing into our memory, into our consciousness. We do this because we know it won’t be long before we’re questioning, again, whether anything matters, whether love and meaning even exist, or this life is just one big curse.

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