Gospel of John: Spikenard


And so Jesus, six days before the Passover, came into Bethany where Lazarus was, who had been aroused out of death by Jesus. Then they made a feast there, for Jesus, and Martha served them, and Lazarus was one of those who reclined at the table with Jesus.

Accordingly, Mary took hold of a pound of perfumed oil, spikenard, pure and unadulterated, very costly and precious, and she anointed Jesus’ feet in homage, then kneaded the oil into his feet with her hair, and the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfumed oil.

John 12:1-3

The Master Arrives

Jesus and the Twelve arrived just as evening was turning to twilight. The cool of the air was balmy and sweet, with the savor of spring, but the men were tired, for they had walked with purpose the whole day long. A servant had been sent to watch by the gate, and as Jesus drew near, the servant called out, “Master!” Jesus, and all his disciples lifted their heads, and smiled as the servant gestured that they should follow him.

Soon they were entering the aromatic courtyard garden of Simon the Leper’s house, where side tables were laden with every delicious dish, and guests were visiting in small groups with each other. Servants hurried to wash Jesus’ and the disciples’ feet, to brush the dust of their travel from their cloaks, and offer them bowls of water to rinse their hands and faces. Even as they were patting themselves dry with fresh linen cloths, Simon and Lazarus were moving to usher the Lord and his disciples to the places of honor at the central table, where places had also been saved for Lazarus and Simon.

Wind of the Spirit

John, ever the quiet observant one, noted the incense burners, the braziers with slow cooking pots, Martha in the background, directing the servants to pour wine, to serve the dishes in their proper order, pointing to one or another guest’s need before that person even fully realized themselves they would be in want. Martha reserved for herself the serving of Jesus’ table, saving the choicest food for the Lord and the Twelve. Everything had been prepared under her direction and particular attention. This was her own gift of love, to care for him—for them—in the best way she knew.

Towards the middle of the dinner, Martha slipped into Simon’s house, where the women were also feasting. Sconces along the wall flickered, flames dancing on wicks dipped in the finest oil, so there was little smoke. Laughter and the rippling fountain of feminine voices filled the room with its music, and as Martha entered, to oversee their feast, she was unexpectedly filled to overflowing. Her heart pounded lightly, and her breath came quickly as she went to Mary, reclining with good friends. As their eyes met, Martha smiled and gently gave a nod.

It was time.

Mary, eyes bright, excused herself from the table, lifting the bundle she had kept close beside her. Together, the sisters silently made their way to the courtyard, where now the deeper purl of masculine voices rose and fell. As so often happened, as evenings drew on into night, the wind had come, swirling above the house, lightly entering among the guests, brushing faces, dancing softly across the tables, and the leaves of Simon’s fruit trees.

Lamps flared and winked as draughts fluttered over them, and, it seemed to John, with the air’s current came an inchoate sense of excitement. He could feel flurries of it, rustling within him. He looked to the Master and smiled unconsciously as he watched Jesus’ face. The time in Ephraim had been good for them all, a needed retreat. The village fare had been simple, and they had slept out beyond the village wall, under the trees, the air crisp but not too much so.

They had become used to sleeping in the rough. How he loved when Jesus spoke of the stars, during those nights, of the heavens and of spiritual things. As he watched his beloved rabbi’s face, John noticed movement behind Jesus, and his eyebrows rose in wonder as Mary approached, holding a pale jar with both her hands. Her eyes rested on John for moment, and when she smiled, he could see her eyes glisten.

A Family’s Gift of Love

Now others noticed. Lazarus who was reclining at the table near Jesus, turned his head then rose to a seated position, to make room for his sister. Peter looked up, now, and John’s brother Andrew, who was reclining near him. And so it went, head after head turned, and some sat up, startled Mary would enter the room, now come to the Lord’s table.

There was a collective sigh—or was it a gasp?—as she unwound her long veil, and let it slip to her shoulders, her dark, lustrous hair cascading in a rich river of blue-black rivulets, down over her arms and past her waist. Blood rushed to her cheeks, and she looked down, but soon knelt beside the Son of God, Savior of the World, still holding the jar.

A tiny click came as she broke the seal, and lightly lifted its ornate stopper. Almost immediately, the breeze had found and curled itself around the slowly undulating scent of spikenard. John swallowed hard. His father, the prosperous owner of a thriving fishing business, had settled a dowry on their older sister that was less than a third the value of what Mary held in her hands. He had never seen so much treasure in such a small vessel. And even the flask itself was precious, carved from a single stone of alabaster.

All eyes were on Mary, now, riveted to every small movement of her hands, every nuance of her face. But John watched the Lord, whose face seem to glow from within. His whole person seemed to shine, the lamplight shimmering in his robe as though woven through it, and emanating from his skin as though he were made of light. As Mary looked up, to place the stopper on the table beside her brother, her eyes met Jesus’. John could feel the impact of the powerful love that passed between her and the Lamb of God.

She was held in his gaze, paused, at peace, at rest, then Jesus closed his eyes, and an audible groan rose up from voice after voice, as she rose up on her knees, lifted the jar with both hands, and poured a golden green brooklet of ambrosial oil onto Jesus’ head. Narrow rills streamed through his hair, and over his beard, the perfume so potent it overwhelmed even the incense burners.

Then Mary poured the remainder over Jesus’ ankles and feet, until the jar’s contents had been completely emptied.

No one spoke.

John could hardly breathe, and he could not stop watching what was happening before him.

Intimacy With Christ

Then John caught his breath once again as Mary gathered her thick, luxuriant hair and began to slowly rub the oil into Jesus’ feet. All were now so quieted, only the braziers’ occasional hiss and sputter made a sound. Even the servants stood back in the shadows, having obeyed Martha’s signal.

125ed-magdalena2bunge2bpies2bde2bjesus, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

After a while, Mary’s homage became too painful, too intimate to watch. Already shocked and discomfited, men at other tables began to murmur to each other, and the disciples, as well, shifted uncomfortably, and began to speak to each other in low whispers. The servants moved in to refresh winecups, bringing out fresh fruit, and dewy cheeses. Lazarus remained sitting upright, only shifting slightly in a protective way, towards his sister. Jesus remained quiet, his eyes closed, the light so soft and glowing about him, his features seemed indistinct.

A Different Wind

Judas Iscariot, towards the end of their table, had been speaking a little more loudly than the others, his voice strained. Now he stood, his hands on his hips, his elbows akimbo, glaring at Mary. Matthew’s face was clouded, Simon the Zealot looked troubled. The mood was shifting.


[Mary anoints Jesus’feet | See page for author, CC BY 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons]

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