Contemplating Jesus

PERFUME AND TEARS

Posted on by Lucinda M. Vardey

James Tissot (1836-1902) Brooklyn Museum

An account of a woman’s informal anointing of Jesus appears in all the four gospels. Each one varies slightly, but all took place during a meal, the disciples reacted similarly, and Jesus responded the same way.  Two of the women anointed his head and two his feet (drying them with their hair).  Only one shed tears.

In Matthew (26:6-13) Jesus is on his way to the Passover Feast in Jerusalem and is dining at the house of Simon “the leper.” An unnamed woman enters with an alabaster jar of costly ointment and pours it on his head.

In Mark (14:3-9) the house of Simon the leper is noted to be situated at Bethany, where Jesus’ friends, Lazarus, Martha and Mary lived.  John’s gospel (12:1-10) identifies the anointing by “pure nard” to be actually undertaken by Martha’s sister Mary, whose contemplative relationship with Jesus he acknowledged to be “the better part” of how to serve him as guest.

In Luke’s version (7:38-39), the woman is identified only “as a sinner.”  She enters a house of a Pharisee (called Simon) where her tears bathe Jesus’ feet and she dries them with her hair.  After this she kisses his feet while anointing them with the precious ointment. This account is the one commonly linked with Mary Magdalene: a woman who we know familiarly loved her Rabbouni with physical embrace. Whatever the truest account, the fact that the incident was reported in all four gospels means that it was important to record.  And like all gospel stories it is packed full of significance, signs and teaching.

The first significance is that Jesus allowed himself to be touched by a woman, not as he was walking along the road (although that happened as well) but while eating at table. The second is that in this very intimate act – which presaged Jesus later washing his disciple’s feet –  the woman expresses the inexpressible, the love and honour of a man who is worthy of everything she can give.   This worthiness is found not only in the act of physical anointing, but, according to theologian, Dr. Mary Healy, in the extraordinarily high cost of the ointment itself.   “Pure nard,” she wrote, “is breathtakingly expensive: it is worth a year’s wages – in our terms $25,000.”   This is why the disciples retort about the waste of such an act: that the nard could have been sold and the money distributed to the poor.  Jesus defends the woman by explaining her actions as prophetic.  By anointing him this way she was, in fact, preparing him for his burial.  Such love and devotion Jesus adds in Mattthew’s gospel will be recounted “in the whole world: what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.”  (Matt 26: 6-13)

What this woman did was also acknowledge the kingship of Jesus.  In the Israelite tradition, the fragrance that “filled the house” signified “that the king belonged to God in a unique way.” *  As Messiah means “the anointed one” the woman, in her silent actions, expressed everything.  In sorrow she wept, she washed his feet and dried them with not one great asset (her hair) but possibly her entire dowry as well.*   She comforted him by making sure that when he lay all night in Caiphas’ prison, when he stood condemned, when mocked and beaten, when crucified and dying, he would still smell that scent, that fragrance, that rich, heavenly perfume.

  • Ref: The Woman with the Alabaster Jar (Rome address Nov 2014 by Dr. Mary Healy)
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