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From feminine fragrance to the act of faith

· ​Symbols in the Bible ·

In the biblical East many perfumes and aromatic oils were known which were used for the hair and for the care of the body, both in general and in specific circumstances of life such as weddings, funeral rites, those of anointment, worship and yet others, but they were also used to perfume clothes and furnishings. The aloe, cinnamon, myrrh, incense and spikenard cultivated in the Jordan valley or imported from Arabia and other places formed the basis of these perfumes. Aromatic plants were placed in sachets and hung among clothing. In the Biblical texts we come across many references to the use of perfumes and to the appropriate occasions on which to perfume oneself. Furthermore one of the anthropomorphic characteristics attributed to God is his olfactory capacity. For this reason in worship the odour of specific sacrifices was pleasing to him while that of others was not.

Marc Chagall, “Song of Songs”

What the Lord expects of his people is the reciprocation of his love: “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God is one Lord”. Thus begins the so-called profession of faith of Israel (Deut6:4-9), which the devout Jew recites every day in moments of prayer. The sentence “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might”, follows the hearing of the proclamation. Loving is synonymous with doing the Lord’s will contained in the Ten Commandments and expressed in human words through Moses. Veneration for these words ensures that a Jew bears them impressed on his or her heart, inculcates them in the children, speaks of them everywhere and at every moment, wears them like a badge tied to the hand, like a pendant between the eyes and writes them on the doorposts of the house and on the city gates. In this way the people of Israel exchange the love that the Lord has shown them by bringing them out of Egypt with his overwhelming power, liberating them from slavery. If Israel remains faithful to this love it will live.

In seeking the symbolism in the relationship between women and perfume in the biblical texts, it seems to me important to bear in mind both the use of this substance in the biblical world and also the close bond of love which the One God of Israel wanted to establish with his people and, by extension, with all humanity. In the Old Testament this symbolic relationship between women and perfume is expressed above all in the Song of Solomon and in the New Testament in the so-called “anointing of Bethany”, in particular in the version of the Gospel according to John. The two stories have aspects in common.

The Song of Solomon, as is well known, contains a collection of love poems. The framework of these poems is the dialogue between two lovers who seek one another and feel the lack of each other, when they are not together. The love professed is unbounded and is often described with a strong erotic component. The (nameless) lovers exchange loving phrases and gestures of tenderness and each describes the enchantment and beauty of the other. The perfume and fragrances are a constant presence in their mutual relationship.

She sings: “While the King was on his couch, my nard gave forth its fragrance. My beloved is to me a bag of myrrh, that lies between my breasts. My beloved is to me a cluster of henna blossoms in the vineyards of En-gedi” (1:12-14). “Awake O north wind, and come, O south wind! Blow upon my garden, let its fragrance be wafted abroad. Let my beloved come to his garden, and eat its choicest fruits” (4:16). “His cheeks are like beds of spices, yielding fragrance. His lips are lilies distilling liquid myrrh” (5:13).

He sings: “Until the day breathes and the shadows flee, I will hie me to the mountain of myrrh and the hill of frankincense” (4:6). “How sweet is your love my sister, my bride! How much better is your love than wine, and the fragrance of your oils than any spice! Your lips distil nectar, my bride; honey and milk are under your tongue; the scent of your garments is like the scent of Lebanon” (4:10). “A garden locked is my sister, my bride, a garden locked, a fountain sealed. Your shoots are an orchard of pomegranates with all choicest fruits, henna with nard, nard and saffron, calamus and cinnamon, with all trees of frankincense, myrrh and aloes, with all chief spices” (4:12-14). “I come to my garden, my sister, my bride, I gather my myrrh with my spice, I eat my honeycomb with my honey, I drink my wine with my milk” (5:1). “Your head crowns you like Carmel, and your flowing locks are like purple; a king is held captive in the tresses. How fair and pleasant you are, O loved one, delectable maiden! You are stately as a palm tree, and your breasts are like its clusters. I say I will climb the palm tree and lay hold of its branches. Oh, may your breasts be like clusters of the vine and the scent of your breath like apples” (7:5-9).

These verses and others that we could add show that the perfume of the two lovers mutually identifies and attracts them. However, its imagery also describes the admiration that they feel for each other.

In the first poem she sings: “For your love is better than wine, your anointing oils are fragrant, your name is oil poured out”. And she asks her beloved, “Draw me after you, let us make haste” (1:2-4). In the eight chapters of the book it is reaffirmed that this attraction for which she longs is transformed into reciprocal possession: “my beloved is mine and I am his” (2:16; 6:3; 7:11); and his love is so strong that not even chaos or money can annihilate it: “Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm; for love is strong as death, jealousy is cruel as the grave. Its flashes are flashes of fire, a most vehement flame. Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it. If a man offered for love all the wealth of his house, it would be utterly scorned” (8:6-7). The power of this love and the reciprocal attraction of the lovers brought about the allegorical interpretation of the book made by both the Jewish and the Christian traditions, whereby the Song of Solomon speaks of the love between God and his people (for Jews), and between Christ and his Church (for Christians).

 Icon of the Anointing at Bethany (Atelier Saint-André)

As regards the New Testament, I focus on the text of John 12:1-7, where the so-called “Anointing at Bethany” is recounted. The Evangelist knows the synoptic tradition of the life, deeds and words of Jesus but his text corresponds with the intention to bring people to a greater understanding of the One whom the Word made flesh (cf. Jn 1) of his message, of the meaning of his signs, of his death and of his Resurrection. And all this should be borne in mind when we read the Fourth Gospel. So Jesus is at Bethany, where he is offered a supper. It does not say in whose house this is. This omission leads us to think that in his account the author is referring to the (post-Paschal) community of Bethany.

Lazarus is at table with Jesus. So too are his sisters, Martha, who is serving, and Mary who spontaneously “took a pound of costly ointment of pure nard and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair; and the house was filled with the fragrance of the ointment”. Her action gives rise to condemnation by Judas, the disciple who will betray Jesus. Judas complains of the fact that the perfume could have been sold for 300 denarii and the money given to the poor. The narrator of the Gospel explains that he said this, “not that he cared for the poor but because he was a thief, and as he had the money box he used to take what was put into it”. Jesus nevertheless accepts the woman’s action, conferring upon it a meaning, referring it to his burial: “Let her alone, let her keep it for the day of my burial. The poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me”.

In his account John mixes different elements of the synoptic tradition. On the one hand he presents Martha and Mary in the same light as we see them in Luke (10:38-41). Here too Martha serves and Mary is seated at Jesus’ feet and listening to him, as the disciples used to do with their Teacher. Matthew and Mark locate the scene at Bethany “in the house of Simon the leper”. There a (nameless) woman breaks a vase – “of alabaster” and “of a very precious perfumed oil”, according to Mark, while Matthew speaks of perfumed ointment, and implies that it is precious, given the reproach of “some” (identified by Matthew as “the disciples”) – and pours its content on Jesus’ head. John instead says that Mary anointed “the feet of Jesus”. This detail is in line with another episode, in Luke (7:36-50). Jesus is invited to eat at the house of a Pharisee called Simon who fails to make any gestures of hospitality to his guest. A (nameless) woman who was a sinner arrived there and approached Jesus with “an alabaster flask of ointment, and standing behind him at his feet, weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears, and wiped them with the hair of her head, and kissed his feet, and anointed them with the ointment”. Here too Jesus’ words give significance to the woman’s action: “Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much”. And he then tells her, “Your sins are forgiven” and “Your faith has saved you; go in peace”.

In the accounts of Matthew and Mark, as in that of John, Jesus links the woman’s gesture with his burial. But in Luke’s account, as we have seen, it is an act of gratitude of the sinful woman to the One from whom she receives an abundance of forgiveness. In this case Jesus is indicating not so much the symbolism of her gesture as rather the sinful woman’s motivation to make this gesture. Jesus’ action in forgiving her sins is understood as a cause of the woman’s action; for this reason she reciprocates by loving the One from whom she has received merciful love. Luke points out to us the motivation of the woman who anoints the feet of Jesus, and John attributes the anointing to the same part of the body. Might he be indicating to us to what Mary’s gesture corresponds? In my opinion John takes it for granted.

In John 6:44, Jesus tells the Jews who were murmuring: “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him; and I will raise him up at the last day”. Here, curiously, we find the verb “to draw”, the same verb that is present in the Song of Solomon, 1:4, although there it is in the form of a request. In John 6:45 Jesus continues: “It is written in the prophets: And they shall all be taught by God. Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me”. A painstaking study of the meaning of the expression “to go towards” with its verbal form in Greek, which John uses at least 18 times, leads to the conclusion that for him it has a theological meaning, given that the person “who went towards” is impelled by a mysterious earlier compulsion, the result of the attraction to the Father which usually leads to an adherence of faith. This verbal form is applied to Mary but not to Martha. In the episode of the resurrection of Lazarus in John 11, Mary “went to Jesus” when her sister Martha announced his arrival and, throwing herself at his feet said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died”.

We can therefore affirm that in the scene at Bethany, as if we were considering the beloved woman in the Song of Solomon, Mary, in anointing Jesus, stresses her love for him, to the point that it had led her to buy the most expensive ointment. That substance and that aroma are a sign of her love, a love that is priceless. She loves Jesus, she believes in him and anoints him, recognizing him as Lord. Her action anticipates the one that will signify Jesus’ hour, his full manifestation to humanity: his death (burial) and his Resurrection (life): “The house was filled with the fragrance of the ointment”. In the Book of the Song of Solomon we read: “Awake O north wind, and come, O south wind! Blow upon my garden, let its fragrance be wafted abroad”. In our scene, as though it were the south wind, the fragrance of Mary’s action may be shared by all who are in the house. Is John perhaps pointing out to us what Jesus will make possible from the Cross? “I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself” (Jn 12:32).

An open conclusion: despite several common references and the symbolic character of the stories of the Song of Solomon and of the Gospels, the meaning of the use of perfume differs substantially between the two. In the Song of Solomon it has a contingent character: it identifies the lovers, attracts them and exalts in remembrance their reciprocal admiration. In the Gospel texts its symbolic use is transcendental and almost sacramental: that is, it refers to an anterior reality which is a gift and salvation, pointing it out, recognizing it, giving thanks and loving it.

Concepció Huerta

The author

Concepció Huerta gained a degree in theology with a specialization in Sacred Scripture at the Facultat de Teologia de Catalunya. She has studied the Fourth Gospel in particular and is currently Secretary of the Associació Biblica de Catalunya. Among her publications mention should be made of the articles L’Atracció de Déu: Jn 6, 44a (1999) [the attraction of God: Jn 6:44a], Veure Déu en Jesús (2006) [seeing God in Jesus] and, more recently, Les paraules de Jesús segons l’Evangeli de Joan (2015) [the words of Jesus according to the Gospel of John].

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