(Begin by reading the portion of the Gospel provided. Sometimes it is good to have someone read it to you. The Word is meant to be heard.)
(full reading: Mark 14.1 - 15.47)
This Sunday marks the beginning of Holy Week when, all over the world, the Church thinks deeply about the events of Jesus' dying and rising to new life. As we begin, the Church gives us two Gospel readings to consider: Jesus entering Jerusalem while the crowds wave palm branches, as well as an account of Jesus' Passion. We get a picture of almost the whole story--without the greatest event of all--before we spend the week examining each moment. When the reading of Jesus' Passion is from St. Matthew or St. Luke, the events begin at the Last Supper and proceed all the way through to his death. This year, though, we hear from St. Mark, and the account begins two days before the Last Supper.
It was two days before the Passover and the festival of Unleavened Bread. The chief priests and the scribes were looking for a way to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him
The plan to end Jesus' life has begun. We are told that they are planning to arrest him "by stealth"--not out in the open for all to see. What does this tell us? What do they know about their own actions?
Jesus is not yet in Jerusalem, but visiting in a nearby village called Bethany.
While he was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, as he sat at the table, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment of nard, and she broke open the jar and poured the ointment on his head.
Here is a very strange thing. In the middle of the meal, a woman comes in with a beautiful jar, breaks it, and pours the contents on Jesus' head. What is going on?
The jar is filled with an oil infused with nard. Nard has a beautiful smell, sort of like lavender, which some people today grow in their gardens. Beautiful smells we call fragrances. When the woman breaks open the jar, the fragrance of the nard would fill the room. It would be like someone using an oil infuser with a fragrant oil, or burning incense at church. Instantly, the fragrance would fill the nostrils of all in the house.
Nard comes all the way from India, so of course that would make it expensive for those living in Israel. The woman does not seem to care, though, does she? She does not dab a little of the ointment on Jesus; she pours it. She is not concerned about waste. An abundance of oil flows over his head.
Why is she pouring oil on Jesus? When the people grumble about this waste, Jesus says,
“Let her alone; why do you trouble her? She has performed a good service for me. For you always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish; but you will not always have me. She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial. 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.”
Jesus tells us that she is anointing him. To anoint someone is to cover them with special oil. In Jesus' time, people anointed the bodies of those who died as a sign of their love and their respect. The oil would not be washed away, so that even as the body decayed in the tomb, the good fragrance would remain.
Perhaps the good fragrance of the oil will remain with him throughout the Passion even to the cross. Perhaps over the stench of sweat and the odour of blood, the fragrance of the oil will stay with him, reminding him of this anointing. But what will it make him think of? Death?
And why should she anoint him before his death and burial? Jesus says this is somehow part of the good news. What can this woman possibly know?
We remember that when Jesus dies, his friends do not have time to prepare his body properly for burial because all work stops as the sun goes down the evening before the Sabbath. They must wait Friday night, and all day Saturday--the Sabbath day--the sacred day of rest. As soon as possible, when the sun rises on the Sunday, the first day of the week, his friends go to the tomb with oil to anoint his body. But are they able to anoint him? They cannot, because he is Risen. This woman anoints him beforehand for burial because she will not get a chance to do it after he dies. This is the Good News. Death is not the end, and somehow deep inside, this woman knows it. And we know it, too.
wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.
But is this true? We hear the Good News proclaimed but do we hear about what this woman has done? Not often. We hear about the betrayal and the denials, we hear about the torture and death, we hear about the empty tomb and the promise of eternal life--but we rarely hear about this anointing. Jesus is wrong.
Or is he? Is the Good News proclaimed only to our ears? Is hearing the only way we come to know the Good News? What about our other senses?
At our Baptism, and again when we are Confirmed, we are anointed with a fragrant oil. It is called the Oil of Chrism--it is Christ's oil. The fragrance of the oil lingers on our skin for a long time. Everyone can smell the Good News. Everyone inhales the Good News in remembrance of this woman who anoints Jesus for burial beforehand, because death is not the end.
For a reflection on the prayer of Jesus while he in on the cross, click here.