I have chosen to focus my commentary on John's Gospel.
Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, ‘Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?’ (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, ‘Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.’
This particular text from John’s Gospel is full of themes that make for fascinating sermons. There are themes of Mary breaking gender roles by touching Jesus. There is a discussion about the extravagance of using a pound of “nard” to wash Jesus’ feet. Which means nothing to us now, perhaps saying something like “took a pound of saffron and put it into pancakes for Saturday morning breakfast” would make more sense. Taking something that is extravagantly expensive and using for the most ordinary task. Then there is a discussion about serving the poor and appropriate use of resources. But I do not want to talk about that. I want to reflect upon this text in my context as a healthcare chaplain.
This story has the title of “Mary Anoints Jesus.” About a week before Jesus is to die upon the cross, Mary anoints his feet with the most pure and costly oil. Anointing, the ceremonial marking of a person with oil or by symbol alone, is a practice with a long history. We hear in the Hebrew Bible about priests being anointed. The disciples are said to anoint the sick after healing them. And in this passage, Mary anoints Jesus.
The Catholic church has entirely different connotations of the practice of anointing, so I will not go into those here. But in my practice of ministry, anointing is something that I do frequently. It is part of the commendation of the dying liturgy, something that I find myself doing about once a week, as well as part of a blessing that I give to my patients. Anointing happens in the baptisms that I provide for the sick and dying. Sometimes I use oil, sometimes I use water, sometimes it is just my fingers, smelling faintly of alcohol rub from my hand hygiene ritual. Anointing is a physical representation of a holy manifestation. It is a proclamation of “This moment is sacred. God is here. We are setting aside this moment as something outside the ordinary.” Anointing takes the most ordinary of things, one person touching another, and imbues it with a sense of the holy. It is a mark of God’s presence.
Mary is the only one that sets aside this sacred moment in the bustle of a large group dinner and the disagreement about the use of the nard. I think about how I often make eye contact with a dying patient or their family members as I am anointing someone’s forehead. I tenderly make the sign of the cross and resting my palm on their head, I say, “Well done good and faithful servant. To God you belong.” Quiet words amidst the chaos of a trauma room, the alarms of an ICU or the oppressive air of a nursing facility. An anointing of a moment. God is here.