It is not without great significance that the Scripture for Monday of Holy Week is actually about the events of the day before Holy Week began. In fact, in the Greek Church they actually have a specific celebration for this, calling it “Lazarus Day”.
St. John tells us that six days before the Passover, “Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus was, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. They gave a dinner for him there, and Martha served, while Lazarus was one of those reclining at table with him. Mary took a liter of costly perfumed oil made from genuine aromatic nard and anointed the feet of Jesus and dried them with her hair; the house was filled with the fragrance of the oil.” (John 12:1-3)
We can fill in some of the blanks from the Gospels of St. Matthew 26:6-13 and St. Mark 14:1-9. St. Matthew tells us that they were at the house of “Simon the Leper”. (Wow! Dining with lepers. . .Jesus was truly the first radical, non-conformist!) Matthew does not name the woman, but he gives us more information about the jar. He tells us it was an “alabaster jar of perfumed oil, costly genuine spikenard”. St. Mark also fails to provide the woman’s name, but he also describes her as coming with “an alabaster jar of perfumed oil, costly genuine spikenard.”
Okay. . .there’s a lot going on here, even before Judas starts to feign indignation at her wasteful use of something so expensive. First of all, try to imagine yourself sitting around the table with friends. Everyone is laughing and talking, waiting for the food to be set on the table. It is a fun, relaxing time. Then, for no apparent reason, someone comes up to your guest of honor and pours oil on him! And as if that wasn’t enough, the whole house then reeked of it. I have no doubt that this was not a common occurrence, and that everyone present, with the exception of Jesus, was shocked. And they said so.
But Jesus was not shocked. He didn’t seem perturbed in the least, and the way I read it, He seemed to be pleased with her act. He told them she was anointing him for burial. This probably seemed a little odd to them, since he was quite obviously alive and well, and didn’t seem to be in any imminent need of burial. Yet the woman, who John names as Mary, seemed to know. Perhaps the Holy Spirit gave her some sort of foreknowledge of the events of the coming week. Because, of all the oils used to anoint someone for burial, it is no accident, in my opinion, that she chose Spikenard.
Spikenard is an aromatic rhizome. (A rhizome is a type of plant stem that grows underground and shoots off roots, like a tuber, or bamboo). So it’s not a flower, or an herb. It’s a root, of sorts. And it gets even more interesting to me that the botanical name for Spikenard (Nardostachys Jatamansi DC) has its roots in the Hindu word “Jatamansi”, which means “lock of hair”. I think that’s particularly significant in light of Mary drying his feet with her hair.
Spikenard is traditionally used to calm the nerves, promote awareness, and strengthen the mind. It was even sometimes used to treat hysteria. I know Jesus was God, but he was also Man. He probably really appreciated being anointed with an oil that had a calming effect. Undoubtedly, considering that we are told that the entire house was filled with the smell of the oil, it had a calming effect on everyone else present, as well. (Okay, Judas Iscariot was probably the exception here. He was probably already cranky about having to dine with a leper. He had to have been experiencing the beginnings of some sort of paranoid schizophrenic break about his impending betrayal. The oil was probably just one more bur under his saddle at that point.)
But Jesus not only took it all in stride, He made it a point to tell them that her act of love would always be remembered, wherever the story would be told. It was greatly significant to Him.
But what about Lazarus? Well, his sister Martha was preparing the food that night. And, their sister Mary (who had a tendency to sneak out of the kitchen and hang out with Jesus whenever the opportunity arose) seems to be the one with the Spikenard. But we have no record of Lazarus reprimanding his sister for her bold act. We are simply told he was one of those reclining at table. What we do know is that a large crowd of Jews had assembled, not just to see Jesus, but also to see Lazarus, since he was so recently raised from the dead. Apparently, Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead got a lot of people’s attention, and they were turning away from the chief priests and believing in Jesus. And, from what St. John tells us, the chief priests (never men to leave any stone unturned) were plotting to kill Lazarus as well as Jesus, because of all the Jews who were becoming believers!
Jesus was well aware of all the drama unfolding around him, even before the Triumphal Entry of the next day. He knew he was going to die before the week was up. He knew how agonizing and brutal his death would be. He knew that his role had shifted from “Good Shepherd” to “Sacrificial Lamb”. There are a lot of things he might have done to prepare himself. He chose to have dinner with friends before crossing his Rubicon into Jerusalem.