Monday of Holy Week
The readings for the day can be found here.
“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.” Mary’s action flouted ordinary social conventions at the time, and today it shatters our stereotypes about Lent. We think it is about simplicity, voluntary poverty, the denial of sensual desires; and here she is, filling the house with the luxurious fragrance of extravagance. Her action flows from a pure and self-giving love, from a heart overflowing with desire to honor Jesus. She reminds us that cultivating such love is the whole point of the usual Lenten disciplines; without it, they are nothing.
We cannot say for sure why Mary pulled out the nard (almost certainly one of the most expensive things she owned), but it probably has to do with the earlier events surrounding the raising of her brother Lazarus. She and Mary had asked Jesus to come and heal Lazarus, and he had not come. Lazarus died. Mary probably felt betrayed then, probably felt that Jesus did not really care for her, just as so many of us have at one time or another felt betrayed by God, when our deepest groans in prayer have seemed to echo back to us from the walls of a cold and indifferent universe. “If you had come,” she told him, “my brother would not have died.” When Jesus raised Lazarus, perhaps she came to see that Jesus had meant good for her all along, that by not giving her what she wanted—by seeming to betray her—he was setting out to give her something even better. Perhaps this is what moved her to anoint him with the nard: her realization that he was loving her even when it seemed otherwise—and even when, because it seemed otherwise, she had hated him.
All that I have said so far is speculation. But one thing about Mary’s action, about the fragrance of the oil in the house, is perfectly clear. In actions more powerful than words, it told Jesus: “You are precious to me, delightful like this aroma in the air around us.” As we begin Holy Week, may we join Mary in telling Jesus, “You are precious,” in really feeling what that means. May we take a moment and tell him. We will find him in prayer, but also in the least of our brothers and sisters. If we have eyes to see, we will find him in our coworkers, students, teachers, supervisers and employees. Take a moment and let someone know today, “You are precious.”
Scott Ragland is a Professor in the Department of Philosophy.