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We draw closer and closer to the cross on this Lenten journey. Next Sunday is Palm Sunday, and then it is Holy Week, leading to Good Friday when we sit at the foot of the cross and watch Jesus die, and then we wait despairingly yet expectantly through Silent Saturday, until Easter morning when our Lord rises from the dead. Morbid though this may sound, this is indeed a time of death and devotion.
Mary, the sister of Lazarus, pours very expensive perfume (Nard) on Jesus’ feet and wipes them with her hair (John 12:1-8). A parallel story is found in Mark 14:1-9. This narrative raises multiple messages, but two have resonated strongly with me this weekend: death and devotion.
This story is soaked with death. The previous chapter (John 11) told us of Lazarus’ death, how he was laid in a tomb for four days, and how Jesus then raised him from the dead. This same Lazarus now sits around the table with Jesus, eating a meal! Mary’s use of Nard to anoint Jesus’ feet suggests burial preparation, as if Jesus has already died and is being embalmed. In the next passage, Jesus makes his triumphal donkey entry into Jerusalem, signalling the start of Holy Week – Jesus’ final walk to the cross. He talks at some length about his impending death. In chapter 13, Jesus washes his disciples feet, a kind of replication of Mary’s act (but with water, not perfume). Jesus shares his ‘last supper’ with the disciples. From here on, Jesus speaks almost only to his closest friends and family. There are no further public sermons. He retreats from the world, as he prepares to die, entering a quiet, reflective space.
We, as part of his closest friends and family, are invited in these last days of Lent to be present with Christ as he walks towards death.
Mary anoints Jesus’ feet. She does not wash them with water to cleanse them, as was typically done for guests, by servants. Nor does she rub oil into his feet to protect them from the dry, dusty roads, as would be done with an important guest, also by servants. Instead, Mary – one of Jesus’ hosts – pours expensive perfume over them. Nard came from the high mountains in India, particularly the Himalayas. It had a sweet and earthy fragrance, that lasted a long time. It was very expensive, and stored in alabaster jars to preserve the fragrance. Mary’s pouring out of this perfume is extravagant. Some suggest that this jar of Nard was her entire dowry. It is an excess of perfume, much like the wine that Jesus created at another banquet (in Cana) was excessive and extravagant.
She washes his feet with her hair. Jewish women treated their hair with modesty, typically covering it for all except their husbands. To let it loose would be seen by some as immoral. It certainly was profoundly intimate; she could have used a cloth, but instead used her hair.
We must imagine Jesus reclining – there were no chairs. So Mary must be on her knees, bowed low over Jesus’ feet, her face almost on his feet, so that her hair can wrap around them to dry them. It is intimate and devoted, a pouring out of her innermost being on Jesus’ feet.
We, like Mary, are invited in these last days of Lent to devote ourselves utterly to Christ as he walks towards the cross.
Death and devotion
Jesus’ response to those who reprimand Mary for being so wasteful poignantly ties together death and devotion. He makes two main points:
- He is soon going to die.
“Leave her alone,” Jesus replied. “It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial” (John 12:7).
“Leave her alone. Why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing to me… She did what she could. She poured perfume on my body beforehand to prepare for my burial” (Mark 14:6 & 8).
- Before he dies, we may devote ourselves to him.
“You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me” (John 12:8).
“The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want. But you will not always have me” (Mark 14:7).
We, like they, are invited in these last days of Lent to set aside our day to day responsibilities and to make ourselves available to be with Christ.
Featured image from https://www.gloriadei.ca/blog/worship-june-12