In John 12 we are confronted by the intimate scene of Mary of Bethany anointing Jesus’ feet with expensive perfume and wiping them with her hair. Her brother Lazarus who has just been raised from the dead (in John 11) is now seated at the table with Jesus. Their sister Martha had warned Jesus that the tomb would stink of death and now Mary pours so much precious perfume on the feet of Jesus that the house is flooded with its fragrance.
According to John’s Gospel, raising Lazarus from death lead to the death of Jesus. Many people flocked to see and hear not only Jesus but also to see Lazarus raised from the dead. In response, the religious authorities starting planning for Jesus to be put to death “because many were going away and believing in Jesus” (John 12:11). In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus describes the anointing by a woman as his anointing for burial. Here in John’s Gospel, immediately after Mary anoints Jesus he enters Jerusalem, the city where he will be put to death. His hour has come. Karoline Lewis has prepared a reflection on how both Mary mother of Jesus and Mary friend of Jesus love him into his future as his hour comes. (https://www.workingpreacher.org/?lect_date=04/07/2019&lectionary=rcl)
Mary of Bethany anoints Jesus in readiness for his death. As a church we continue to anoint people to prepare for death, but also for healing and during baptism. During Holy Week clergy of the Diocese gather in the Cathedral for Chrism Mass. We will renew our ordination vows and the oils of unction (for healing) and chrism (for baptism) will be blessed and we can replenish our oil stocks in parishes and hospitals.
In the Bible, people seem to resume putting oil on their heads as part of a daily routine of grooming after periods of sickness or fasting (see Ruth 3:3; 2 Sam 12:20; 14:2; Dan 10:2, 3; Mic 6:15; Matt 6:16, 17). To be anointed with oil might serve as a symbol of confidence that the prayer for healing will lead to the resumption of everyday living. In Mark’s Gospel when Jesus sends out the disciples two by two – “they went out and proclaimed that all should repent. They cast out many demons and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them” (Mark 6:12-13). In his letter, James includes these words:
13 Are any among you suffering? They should pray.
Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise.
14 Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord.
When Mary anoints Jesus it is also a recognition of who Jesus is.
Jesus is the Messiah, which means “Anointed One” in Hebrew.
Jesus is the Christ, Christos means “Anointed One” in Greek.
Mary of Bethany loves Jesus into his future by anointing the Anointed One, who we recognise as Messiah, who we experience as Christ, and in whose name we may seek healing.