A reflection on Propers for Lent 5C: Isaiah 43;16-21, Psalm 126, Philipians 3:4-14, John 12:1-8 by The Rev. Camille Hegg
When Mary anoints Jesus with “a pound of costly pure nard,” she was doing something both brave and loving. In this age of fear and anxiety, to approach someone and anoint him is an act of hope and expectation, neither fear nor anxiety.
There are many instances of the use of oil for anointing in the Bible. The psalmist says to put on the “oil of gladness.” The “balm in Gilead” is reminiscent of the ointment or oil, balm, for soothing and easing pain. When Jesus was brought frankincense and myrrh, these were probably oils for anointing. After his death the women returned to anoint his body for burial. David was anointed king although we are not told what oil was used. There are so many more examples of the use of elements of the earth for anointing and healing. An in-depth study of the various oils of the Bible is interesting and engenders my own creative energies.
I keep an aloe plant in my kitchen. When I cut or burn myself I cut a stem and rub the viscous matter that oozes from it onto the hurt place. Frequently the next day I can’t tell anything happened. Aloe is also mentioned in the Bible. Traditions grew up around various oils from plants, tree bark, roots of the earth. More than ‘old wives tales,’ these understandings of the properties and uses have been passed down for centuries and still hold meaning and interest today. And, by the way, “old wives” are and were very wise in many ways.
Therefore, I decided to look into ‘nard’ and see what Mary might have been using. Nard is a shortened word coming from spikenard. Some versions actually say spikenard. In Song of Solomon, 1:12, the bride says, ‘while the king sits at his table my spikenard sends forth its fragrance.” It was prepared by steaming the roots of a plant, some sources say a valerian plant from India, others make no mention of which plant. It was probably mixed with olive oil. Hippocrates and Galen both prescribed it as a sedative and said it was good to help with sleep. Spikenard was prized by Egyptians and imported to the holy land, usually in alabaster jars and was indeed very expensive.
The folklore around it was that nard was useful to quell fear and anxiety, improve meditation, and induce restful sleep and pleasant dreams. Jesus could have benefitted from all these properties especially at this dinner on this evening.
They were at a dinner party for Lazarus. The evening was probably jovial as they celebrated Lazarus’ return. Surely some, Mary and Jesus if no others, had a sense of impending gloom or darkness. Mary was weeping. We don’t know Jesus’ demeanor or state of mind, except that he was with his friends and it was, according to John, six days before the Passover.
He allowed her to anoint him. As she cried she dried her tears with her hair. These are acts of love and devotion amidst grief, and sadness. He defended Mary when Judas criticized her extravagance in using this expensive oil.
John says the room was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. I’ll bet that many of them remembered Mary’s actions, Jesus’ responses, the sweet, earthy smell of the room that night when on the day of his death Jesus was returned to the earth in the tomb. Acts of love, kindness, bravery and faith, last longer than a fragrance, but the fragrance carries its own memories.