Wed., April 4, 2012–Wednesday of Holy Week. In Mark’s gospel, it’s the day that Jesus is in Bethany, having dinner at Simon the leper’s house, when a woman comes in “with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment of nard, and she broke open the jar and poured the ointment on his head.”
“The fragrance filled the whole house,” another gospel says, and I have no doubt. Apparently nard is an incredibly volatile oil, and if it’s used for anointing dead bodies, its odor has to be strong, to compete with the smell of the body.
That’s what she was doing, Jesus says, “anointing my body beforehand for its burial.”
I love this story and it challenges me. First of all, it’s important to read this story from Mark on its own terms. Luke says the woman was “a sinful woman,” aka a prostitute. John’s version names her as Mary, Martha and Lazarus’ sister, whose house is where the dinner took place. Tradition has combined all these versions and says that it was Mary Magdalene, the sinner, who poured the ointment over Jesus. More recent research on Mary Magdalene (entirely apart from The DaVinci Code) reveals a much more complex and challenging picture of her. (I recommend Cynthia Bourgeault’s The Meaning of Mary Magdalene as just one of several very good studies.)
At any rate, here in Mark, the woman is unnamed, and yet Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.” What a radically different view of “fame” than our culture has!
I love that this woman doesn’t care what other people think (and wish I had a little more of that!). She just knows she loves Jesus. The men who were there at the dinner groused about the waste, how the ointment should have been sold and given to the poor, and they “scolded her.” Thanks, guys. They are used to making decisions about what to do with resources from a place of fullness, carefully, frugally meting and measuring out in piles–this one’s for food, this one’s for taxes, this one’s for the church, this one’s for the poor, …
My guess is this woman didn’t usually have much choice. If she had anything, it got spent on the most urgent need. I don’t know how or where she got this alabaster jar of nard, but I get the feeling it was all she had to give. But she didn’t give it from a place of scarcity. She gave it from a place so full of love and light and abundance and generosity that, of course, the fragrance filled the whole house. Her gift filled the whole house.
And then Jesus gave all he had. And the fragrance filled the whole world.
It’s only Wednesday. I need to pace myself, make sure I get everything done, for Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter. This pile of energy is for this, this one’s for this, …. I keep this unnamed sister in my heart, drawing upon her courage, her generosity, her love, and think I can catch a whiff of that fragrance…