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“Mary took a pound of costly ointment of pure nard and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair; and the house was filled with the fragrance of the ointment.” John 12:3
As we begin our last days of lent and enter Holy Week, we are greeted with the story of the anointing of Christ at Bethany. For those who do not know, Mary, the incredible woman who anoints Christ is not Mary Magdalene, but it actually the sister of Martha and Lazarus (Yes, that Martha and that Lazarus.) This story of Mary of Bethany is less known than the famous one with her sister, but I find this gospel to be one of the most profound examples of radical love.
In this remarkable story, Mary pours a jar of pure nard onto Christ. In that time, nard was not just costly—the amount that Mary had which we are told could have been sold for at least 300 denarii, would be the equivalent of at least $20,000 today.
Think of that. $20,000 worth of perfume oil. Completely poured out – according to the apostles, it was completely wasted.
It is even more fascinating than this — that jar of pure nard would have most likely been the dowry for Mary to one day give her husband. It was probably given to her through an inheritance of some sort.
In other words, Mary of Bethany poured out everything onto Christ— her past, her present, her future. What Mary did was radical — she was chastised by the apostles who said what she did was ridiculous. She “wasted” her entire life on Jesus. And yet, in this beautiful act of pouring herself out for the sake of love, Mary was both anointing Christ for his burial, but also foreshadowing how he would pour himself out for us — a radical act of love foreshadowing the ultimate radical act of love.
Pure nard also has a strong smell – one of the most breathtaking images to imagine in this gospel passage is the line that says, “the house was filled with the fragrance of the ointment.” This oil would have been so strong that the scent of it would have most likely stayed both on Christ and Mary all the way through his passion, which meant that wherever she would go that week, Mary would be spreading the fragrance of Christ.
Moreover, because the fragrance was on Christ, perhaps the sweet smell of the nard poured out with love became a small source of comfort for him as he drew close to his passion. How many times are we comforted by familiar scents – our mom’s cooking, our significant other’s hoodie, warm coffee on a winter morning, summer rain on freshly cut grass? How consoling it must have been to Christ as he neared his death to be reminded through a fragrance that he was loved?
One of my favorite prayers of all time is the Fragrance Prayer, frequently associated with Mother Theresa but in actuality was written by Cardinal John Henry Newman. In it, the first line says “Jesus, help me to spread your fragrance everywhere I go, flood my soul with your spirit and life…” I believe that we, too, can spread the fragrance of Christ as Mary of Bethany did. During this Holy Week, as we meditate on the radical love of our Lord, we can also anoint Christ and be his source of comfort during his passion through pouring out our “perfumes” with acts of radical love – entrusting him with our past, present, and future.