As a Christian, any time you find yourself standing on the same side as Judas Iscariot (#TeamJudas), it’s probably time to take a step back and reevaluate. One biblical narrative that often forces Christians into this dilemma is the story of Mary pouring expensive perfume on Jesus’ feet (John 12:1-8). I suspect many Christians silently sympathize with Judas. In a choice between pragmatic, responsible ministry and a lavish display of devotion, Jesus shockingly sides with the latter. In fact, the longer we dwell on the narrative, the more perplexing and uncomfortable it becomes: Poor people would go without food so Jesus’ feet could smell good.
If this biblical narrative makes a reader conclude that Jesus simply did not care about the poor and outcasts, then I recommend reading literally everything else in the Gospels. The moment is so shocking because of how much Jesus loved the poor. He also makes it clear that the moment is important and unique because He is beginning his journey to the cross. There is no indication that Jesus expected every jar of expensive perfume to be poured on His feet. In fact, that Judas—regardless of his motives—thought it should be sold and the profits given to the poor suggests that pragmatism would have been the more typical response.
Yet Jesus was glorified through Mary’s extreme and seemingly senseless act of love. The story reveals that both conservative stewardship and extravagant devotion are proper postures in worship.
As someone with a PhD in Christian aesthetics, a question people often ask me is, “Why did Christians become less involved in the arts?” There is a myriad of possible responses, but a simple one is that they didn’t. Rather, the Protestant Reformation happened. As Protestants broke away from Catholicism, they became People of the Book, whereas Catholics largely remained People of the Image or Icon.
The Reformation was fueled, in part, by a response to the perceived excess and extravagance of Catholicism. Thus, religious icons and images were smashed and pulled down. Many of the reformers established simple, white-walled church buildings, which provided a stark contrast to the grandeur of Catholic cathedrals. Other than a simple cross, visual artwork was considered a distraction from scripture. The reformers were right to combat abuses in the church, elevate scripture, and preach salvation through grace, not works. But I can’t help but feel that the church has lost its sense of the beauty and extravagance of God along the way.
I’ve been fortunate to travel and experience many famous European cathedrals, from St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City to La Sagrada Família in Spain. And experience is truly the most fitting word. The cathedrals were purposefully designed to foster a spiritual experience. The use of lighting, the shape of the building (often a cross), the elevation of the ceiling, and the placement of stained-glass windows and artwork all work in tandem.
As parishioners enter, they are in the dark. As they progress forward, they are surrounded by illuminated windows and images telling the story of faithful Bible characters and saints. As they reach the middle, their eyes are drawn upward to the steepled roof where extravagant artwork of heavenly beings is displayed. In a symbolic sense, they have entered the presence of God. The moment is both emotionally and spiritually overwhelming.
In contrast, entering many American churches today feels more like arriving at a coffee shop to sip a quick latte with your good buddy Jesus. The design is often utilitarian rather than extravagant or awe-inspiring. The experience is catered to making churchgoers comfortable rather than pulling them into an otherworldly experience.
I’m not implying churches should divert their missions offerings to an enormous building fund. The days of grand cathedrals are over. But is there anything about our worship today—the where, what, and how—that indicates we are entering into the presence of the ruling Lord of the universe? When our church buildings and worship services are designed around practicality and comfort, there is a danger that Christians will naturally begin to view God as merely a practical and comfortable God.
Extravagance is not limited to a church’s design. Arguably, the main point in the story of Mary and the perfume is that things don’t matter. People do. The narrative is not about expensive perfume; it is about Mary’s extravagant devotion and worship. It is about Mary forsaking worldly practicality to the point of appearing foolish to demonstrate her devotion to Jesus. He was not honored by the object but by the sacrifice.
As Christians, we may “amen” Mary’s faith while hoarding our own pricy perfume jars, camouflaging passive and listless faith behind the cover of practicality. What is outwardly sold as responsible stewardship may in fact be white-knuckled clinging to the comfortable and familiar. Extravagant devotion is costly. Mary sacrificed not only money but also her dignity.
The context of worship matters. When God designed His own dwellings on earth, they were filled with extravagant art and beauty. But as the cathedrals now sitting empty across Europe demonstrate, grand buildings and objects are meaningless without extravagant worship and devotion. Let our worship showcase to the world the Holy and glorious God we serve.