Beauty or Goodness? No Choice: A Christian Perspective

Perfume Bottles
Beauty or Goodness? No Choice: A Christian Perspective

About the Author

Reverend Dr. Morar Murray-Hayes

Reverend Dr. Morar Murray-Hayes

The Reverend Dr. Morar Murray-Hayes is the Minister of Maple Grove United Church, and is a member of the Interfaith Councill of Halton. A chatty extrovert with a conversational preaching style, a multi-tasker who is a “multi-worrier” when it comes to caring about people’s problems, and a leader who treasures teaming with the lay people in her church, Morar says that at Maple Grove she has experienced “a deeper level of ministry than I thought possible.” Anyone who has personally received Morar’s deeply compassionate caring and wise counsel will testify to what an inspirational, healing and encouraging ministry it is.

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Christians like us who believe in working for justice for others often have difficulty with beauty. When we started to put stained glass windows into our church, there were folk who didn’t want to contribute and really didn’t want others to.

What we learned was that generosity breeds generosity: that if people are generous, they are generous in all things. So while we raised funds for the windows, we also raised funds for Mission and Service, for heat and light and repairs, and among other good works, we supported a family of children in South Africa who had lost their parents to AIDS.

Jesus has been teaching what is meant by being good for three years, and it didn’t look too much like this anointing of Jesus’ feet by Mary. Mostly it’s about living without so others can have.

Jesus might have been the first minimalist.

Mary Magdalene, then, surprises the disciples by producing costly perfume, beautifully scented, and proceeds to anoint Jesus’ feet – using the most beautiful thing on the least respected of body parts.

If the women in Mary’s family were like mine, this costly perfume was likely hoarded by her mother or grandmother or even great great grandmother. Passed down from one generation to the next because it was too costly to use. With a death, they may have taken a small amount to use to prepare the body, but carefully portioned it out so it would last the generations. This would likely have been the most precious possession in Mary and Martha’s family, so precious that they hadn’t used it all up on their loved brother’s body.

It would have been no surprise, I think, if Jesus had rebuked her, saying, “go and sell this costly perfume, and give the money to the poor.” And if Jesus didn’t say it, we might have expected the disciples to. But only one did: Judas.

The others didn’t protest. Perhaps they got it: the value of a beautiful thing.

We have difficulty with ‘both and.’ Good OR beautiful we can understand. But to say that good is also beautiful and beauty is also good, these are concepts that sometimes elude us.

In the story about Mary anointing Jesus’ feet, I find myself squarely in one particular role: it could have been written for me. Unfortunately, it’s the role of Judas. I’m the one who is often asking the question, couldn’t we spend this money on something more useful?

What happened at Jesus’ anointing in Bethany has plagued the followers of Jesus from then until now. How much do we spend on ourselves and how much do we give to missions? Couldn’t we do more good by giving all this money to the poor instead of spending it on, say, a new building?

What Jesus is saying and Mary is demonstrating is that sometimes it’s okay to be extravagant!

Jesus is on His way to the cross. It is just a few days before Passover. Judas is about ready to betray Him. The crucifixion is less than a week away and Jesus knows it. Jesus and His disciples stop at Bethany. Now, as they are having dinner, Mary does a beautiful but extravagant thing. Mary brings an alabaster jar of very expensive ointment. She breaks open the jar and pours the costly perfumed oil on Jesus’ head. She anoints His head with oil.

Why did she do that? Some say it was an act of gratitude in which she was thanking Jesus for raising her brother Lazarus from the dead. Some say it was a way to encourage Jesus to go into the Holy City and do what had to be done. Others say it was a foreshadowing, an act of preparation, in which she was anointing His body for the death which was to come in Jerusalem a few days later. All say it was an act of love and kindness.

But Judas said it was a waste. If you lived strictly by the Judas mind-set, you would have no Spire on the church, no flowers on the altar, no art on the wall, no robes for the choir, no fine organ, no beautiful weddings. Your daughter would come to you and say, “I’m in love and I’m so happy. I want to get married.” And you would say, “Well, why don’t you just elope? It’s much cheaper. It would be wasteful to have a wedding.” But the Mary mind-set says, “Sometimes in the name of love and kindness and gratefulness, it’s okay. Indeed, it’s beautiful to be extravagant.”

To be extravagant In our generosity; to be extravagant In our gratitude: these are acts of beauty.

Mary gives her very best for Jesus; I am called to do the same. It goes against the grain, because I am naturally more like Judas. Jesus’ forgiveness transforms me, though. Through his extravagant forgiveness I can step out of the role of Judas and into the role of Mary. And when you do, when you do spend foolishly to turn on a light in someone else’s eyes, there is a fulfillment beyond satisfaction. We experience the extravagance of Christ’s love for us.

Sometimes you need beauty to remind you of goodness. When we meditate on the beauty of our windows, we are learning what beauty looks like, and that’s helpful in recognizing the difference between evil and goodness in the world.

I forced myself to watch the clips of Trump supporters clashing with a black woman, a Latino American, and someone who disagreed with them. One of the ways we know that Trump supporters are wrong is that their behaviour is ugly. Hate is ugly; love is beautiful

The ugly odour of human sin disappears in the sacrifice of Jesus which is foreshadowed by the scent of Mary’s perfume.

When Mary anointed Jesus with perfume, as women anointed those who had died, she prepared the disciples and us for the sacrifice Jesus was to make for us

Extravagant acts of love are beautiful. Jesus knew that if Mary did this for him, she would spend the rest of her life anointing the poor.

Beauty and goodness are not choices. They exist within one another. And if we look at the world with God’s eyes, we will know what is truly beautiful and what is truly ugly.

Open yourself to Beauty — Remind yourself that Beauty is a gift of God only surpassed by the beauty of Christ’s sacrificial love – a redemptive gift – and that it is Good. Smell beauty in the air – be enveloped by it, and let Beauty guide your life to the Good.

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Readers Comments (1)

  1. Heather Donaldson says:

    When we were children, my maternal grandfather had us repeat the following refrain, as we said our good nights. “Beauty is truth, truth beauty. That is al ye know and all ye need to know.” These lines from Keats ‘Ode to A Grecian Urn’ have accompanied me as I marvel at the myriad of life’s mysteries. As with so many memories of this dear man (my grandfather, John Smith Donaldson) it’s a great sustainer. Thanks for reminding me, as you so often, dear Morar, of my many blessings.

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