'Now Mary took a pound of very costly spikenard ointment and anointed Jesus' feet and wiped them with her hair.'
This was the last week of Jesus' life and he visits the house of His great friends Lazarus, Martha and Mary at Bethany. Perhaps this was His last 'evening off', His final chance to relax and enjoy Himself privately, away from the public glare, in the company of just a few close friends. As the evening progresses, Mary decides to anoint and massage Jesus' tired feet.
Anointing and massaging with oils was much more common in Jesus' society than this practice is today - though in the hospice movement we use it frequently to engender relaxation and comfort, to communicate that a person is deeply valued and signify the hope of a healing that goes beyond mere removal of symptoms. On this night, Mary is concerned to show her love for Jesus, to help Him relax and prepare for what is obviously going to be a tough week ahead in Jerusalem. Perhaps she half senses the danger He is walking into. At any rate, she seizes this rare opportunity to demonstrate her care and concern in a very practical and personal way.
When we love someone we should seize each opportunity we have to show them that we love them. As Jesus points out, you do not know for how long you will have a person with you. Whether Mary sensed it or not, this was to be the last chance she would have to use the precious oil she had saved on Jesus before He went to the cross. Seize the moment! Do not let us take those we love for granted. Acts of love can seem extravagant and apparently wasteful at the time they are committed, yet such acts live on in our memories and warm our hearts years after they are carried out and that is their true value. As Jesus says in Luke's version of this story, 'Her action will be remembered wherever the Gospel is told.' Jesus is never recorded as saying that of fine words or preaching or a dramatic healing or a good story. When all is said and done, a simple act of love is what will be remembered as being of the greatest value.
Jesus knew and Mary perhaps half knew that her act was prophetic. 'Let her do this against the day of my burial.' When Jesus was taken down from the cross the sabbath was beginning and no work could be done. Most especially, the handling of a body was not seemly, so He could not be anointed for burial. That was why the women were going to the tomb so early on the first Easter morning - to complete the anointing of His body which they had not been able to finish on the Friday evening. Jesus interprets Mary's action as an anointing ahead of time for His own burial. Isn't it true that those who are closest to us sometimes know intuitively what we are going through? Mary couldn't have put it into words, but she knew that something deeply significant and very dangerous was about to happen to Jesus, something that would take all His courage and sap all His strength. This was the only way she could think of to say, 'I'm supporting you in this, whatever happens, I'm for you.'
This anointing represents a parting of the ways. Finally at this meal on this evening, Judas decides to oppose Jesus and betray Him - who knows why? Maybe for financial gain and status in the eyes of the ruling classes or maybe for his own complex psychological reasons. In contrast, Mary decides to side with her friend and not only 'prepare Him aforehand for His burial' but stand with Him, whatever He faces - and she does not yet know that her love will be called to witness His torture and agony on the cross. Occasionally in life there is just such a clear parting of the ways, a moment in which an irrevocable decision is taken and there is then no path back. Sometimes we cannot sit on the fence and choose both ways. Occasionally we do not get a second chance to choose. It cannot have been easy for Mary to risk the disciples' misunderstanding and disapproval, but she knew she had to do it. It must have been agonising to stand at the foot of the cross, but she knew she had to do it. Judas made his choice and once the betrayal was completed, he felt there was no way back for him. There are some acts for which self-forgiveness is profoundly elusive.
As we engage again, this year, in the re-enactment of the familiar events of Holy Week, this little narrative offers us the same choice. Will we stand aloof and critical as we hear the story of Jesus' passion? Will we treat is as something from which we are detached by historical era or disposition or analytical thought? Or will we dare to get as involved as Mary did? Will we follow our emotions where they take us? Will we allow Jesus' death and resurrection to move us deeply, to speak into our lives and to change who we are and what we dare?
'Christ's bursting form the spiced tomb,
His riding up the heavenly way,
His coming at the day of doom,
I bind unto myself today.'
St Patrick's Breastplate.