The Fragrance of the Ointment
J. R. Miller, 1905
It was Mary of Bethany, whose ointment thus filled the house with its fragrance. The first reference in the Bible to perfume, is in a figure of speech which describes God's pleasure in men's offerings. After leaving the ark Noah built an altar and offered sacrifices, and the record says that "Jehovah smelled a sweet savor." The smoke of the offering as it ascended toward heaven, was fragrant to God.
In the ancient tabernacle the golden altar was for the offering of incense. A special prescription was given for this incense. This compound, carefully prepared by the apothecary's art, when cast upon the fire, sent forth rich fragrance which filled all the place. Incense was the symbol of prayer. Prayer is fragrant to God.
Prayers when they reach heaven become fragrant roses, pouring out their holy perfume before God. As from gardens of flowers blooming on the earth, fragrance rises, sweetening all the air—so from homes and hearts of praying ones, God's children in this world, there rises continually to God—holy incense, a pure offering, sweet fragrance. God smells a sweet savor when we pray believingly, sincerely, adoringly, with love.
Perfume stands also in the Scriptures as a symbol of personal influence. "Your name is as ointment poured forth." Influence is something which distills from every life. It cannot be weighed, nor photographed, nor measured—and yet it is the most real thing about a person. It gathers unto itself all that belongs to a life. The whole of one's biography is condensed into it.
A baby has no influence because, as yet, it has no personality. Its name stands for nothing. The baby has no character as yet. It has done nothing to give its name any meaning or any distinction.
But as it grows into boyhood and then into manhood, the name comes to mean something. There gathers into it—all that there is in the life. The acts, the dispositions, the impressions left by the boy's conduct, his behavior, his spirit, his treatment of others, the way he meets his duties, the temper he reveals in contact with other men—all these expressions of the character grow into the name. If he is selfish, sordid, false, unkind, cruel—these qualities give tone to the name wherever it is known. If he has lived worthily, unselfishly, helpfully, honorably, purely—his influence is in accordance with the life he has lived and the personality he has attained.
Influence is the composite of all one's life. From acres of flowers men extract the perfume, and it is all put into a little vial which contains but an ounce or two. For instance, it is said that a hundred and fifty pounds of rose-leaves yield less than an ounce of the attar of roses. So from years of life, with all its acts and words and expressions, its revealings of character and disposition, all the emanations of personality, results that mysterious thing which we call a man's influence.
There are some good people of whom it would be impossible to write a biography worth reading. They have done nothing striking, nothing that would be considered of sufficient value or interest to put into a book. They have lived plain, simple, obscure lives—out of the world's sight for the most part. Yet they have gone about doing good continually. Every day they have left behind them a story of kindness shown, of help and cheer given, of gentle impressions made, of inspirations imparted to others' lives. In their quiet, inconspicuous way—they have done more to touch the lives of others with good, than many who are always in the public eye. As God looks down upon them—their lives are most fruitful of good. The world is sweeter because they have lived in it and passed through it. Yet their life is absolutely uneventful. There is not a single incident in it picturesque enough to make an interesting newspaper paragraph. That which makes their lives worth while to God and men—is the gentle aroma which pours forth from their personality, like perfume from a garden of roses.
The fragrance of Mary's ointment—was a beautiful emblem of Mary's life. It is well to look for the secret of the influence which this simple village maiden attained in the world. She was not an active follower of Christ, except in her own home and in her own quiet daily life. She did not leave all and go with Him, as some other women did. Her name is not connected, even in tradition, with anything startling or great. What was the secret of Mary's immortal influence? The first glimpse we have of her we see her sitting at the Master's feet as a learner. Into her heart she received the words of the Master, and these words were life to her. Like a handful of spices they fell into her heart and transformed her life into radiant beauty. We do not know anything about her personal appearance, whether she was beautiful or not. There is no indication that she was clever, that she was brilliant, that she was in any way specially attractive. But the words of Christ in her life—made it beautiful with all divine beauty.
There is a story of one who in her early days was said to be the homeliest girl in the village where she lived. But instead of being disheartened by her lack of personal beauty, she said to herself, "I will make my life so beautiful, that people will love me in spite of my ugly features." So she set herself to work, under the training of Christ, to grow into loveliness of spirit. She gave up her whole heart to the divine love. She let Christ into her whole being. She took lessons from Christ—lessons of gentleness, patience, thoughtfulness, kindness, humility, graciousness. She sought every opportunity to do good to others. If there was trouble in any home, whether sorrow or need—she was sure to be there with her gentle ministries. If anyone was sick or if any were in sorrow, she found her way to their doors with sympathy and thoughtful love. In due time she became known everywhere as the angel of the village. Her face never grew any more beautiful, except as beneath its homeliness, a gentle radiance of peace and love shone. But her life became so like Christ's, she was such a minister of good to everyone, her disposition was so sweet, her life was so beautiful, that people forgot that she was homely in feature and loved her because they saw Christ in her!
Few women of her generation have left a deeper impression upon the world than she did. Her village, indeed the whole Christian community, was filled with the odor of her sweet life.
Girlhood has almost infinite possibilities. Personal beauty may have its charm—but personal beauty leaves no perfume in the world, unless there is a life back of it which corresponds to it. There are beautiful girls in every community who do not fill any house with the odor of their lives. They are selfish, vain, thoughtless, perhaps irreverent, sometimes proud, even trivial in their lives. The only way a young woman can repeat Mary's story and fill her neighborhood, or even her own home, with the sweetness of her life—is to make it truly a Christ-like life. She must sit at Christ's feet and let Christ's words fill her heart and permeate all her being. She must cultivate the virtues which alone give real beauty to anyone—love, joy, peace, gentleness, patience, humility, and all the Christian graces.
The true transformation of a life begins with what we call the new birth—that is, with the coming of Christ into the heart. The beautiful life is a transfigured life, and the heart of love is the secret of it. We cannot build a sweet and Christ-like life round a bad heart. When we think of it, too, we see that what are called the passive graces have very much to do with making one's life like sweet perfume. The passive graces are such as patience, forbearance, meekness, humility, thoughtfulness.
Jesus said, "Blessed are the meek." Someone illustrates meekness by saying that it is like one of those fragrant trees which bathes with its perfume, the axe that smites into its wood. The meek man is one who gives back love for hate, kindness for unkindness, sweetness for bitterness. Jesus never resented any injury done to Him. Men wronged Him—but He loved on. On the cross, when they drove nails in His hands and feet, His only answer was a prayer for those who were causing Him the excruciating torture!
Patience is another of the passive graces. Patience suffers long and continues to be kind. It bears all things, endures all things, never fails.
Humility is another of these graces. It does not boast, is not puffed up. It is lowly and does not seek to be known or to have its praises sung. There are many Christians who serve Christ and bless the world in such a quiet way, that they are scarcely ever heard of. They do nothing that makes any noise. Like the Master, their voice is not heard in the streets. They fill no offices. They take no public part in the work of the church. They never speak in a meeting. Their names are never in the newspapers. Yet their influence pours out in sweet, quiet, loving lives, like the perfume of flowers. The home in which they live and the little circle in which they move—are filled with the fragrance of their influence.