A reflection on the readings for Lent 5C: Isaiah 43:16-21 and John 12:1-8
Right out of college, in the late 1970’s, I had a small career working in dance and theater. By 1991 I was a stay at home mom with a two year old, yearning for a little something I could to do to earn money but also make my own schedule. My college roommate had carved a career for herself as a massage therapist and it seemed to me that dance and massage therapy would go well together. So, in the fall of that year I enrolled in a 14 month program that would earn me a certificate in therapeutic massage. We had classes on physiology, anatomy, and kinesiology which included memorizing all the muscles and bones in the body and how they moved. We learned various techniques for relieving muscle strain and lactic acid build up, and we had classes on oils.
Now a course on oil is not as silly as it might sound. As it turns out there is good reason to be mindful of what kind of oil one uses. I was surprised to learn that a massage could be given using regular household olive oil. But olive oil is not recommended for this purpose. First of all olive oil is heavy, even the extra light virgin olive oil is too heavy for regular use as a massage oil, besides, who wants to smell like pasta?
A good massage oil is extremely light for two reasons. First of all its light so that it goes on easily and doesn’t leave a heavy residue on the skin when the massage is over. Secondly its light so that the massage therapists hands can glide easily across the skin and feel the muscles below. A heavy oil causes friction which wears on both the therapists hands and the clients skin. And, a heavy oil like olive oil leaves a residue behind staining both clothes and the massage table sheets.
A good massage oil is made from grape seed oil which is very light, gentle, and affords a good glide with little resistance. It is quickly absorbed by the skin and leaves little residue behind. Plus, unlike olive oil, grape seed oil has no fragrance. This makes it perfect for either scenting with a healing fragrance like lavender oil or leaving it unscented for those who have allergies. My work as a massage therapist was healing work, very spiritual, and ultimately led me to discern a call to the priesthood.
The Bible cites many examples of oils used for anointing. A quick reference check through an online word search in Scripture provides 458 times the word oil is used and 171 times anoint is used – making it clear that anointing with oil is a significant holy action. Whether it’s God speaking to Moses about the anointing and creation of the people “Israel” or Samuel regarding King David or the Psalmist describing the anointed ones, or the women preparing to anoint the body of Jesus, or the Holy Spirit anointing new members in the Church in the Acts of the Apostles, or a salve to anoint one’s eyes to see, in the Book of Revelation, this word search through the Bible makes it clear that what we hear Mary doing this morning in the Gospel of John, anointing Jesus’ feet with nard, is holy, and of God.
Nard appears to have been made by boiling the roots of a plant and mixing that with an oil, probably olive oil. Nard was a popular treatment for anxiety and fear and was thought to produce a restful sleep and good dreams. (Camille Hegg, Feminist Theology Blog). I imagine its fragrance to be something far more potent than the gentle qualities of lavender, for the text says that it filled the room. Then again, she did use an entire pound of it – enough for 50 pairs of feet or more, under other circumstances. A rich, abundant, lavish, outpouring of fragrance and oil – so much so that Judas cannot contain himself and has to protest. Of course his protest is a sham, he claims to care about the poor, but we know that he is really thinking about himself and the money he could make from the profit of selling this oil. And we know that in a few days time he will make a profit on the money he gets from selling Jesus to the Romans. He’s not thinking about others, only himself. It’s sad, really.
Thankfully Jesus silences Judas’ protest and raises up Mary’s actions, showing them for what they are – Holy Spirit filled actions of love and compassion – even though they are also outrageous and lavish. Jesus reminds us that this same kind of outrageous lavish action is what God offers us too in the gift of life, and especially in the gift of new life, the resurrection.
But more than an action of love, every example in scripture when oil and anointing are used it is also a time when God is doing something new. From Genesis to Exodus, God is creating a new people. From Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles, God is bringing forth leaders of the people to show them a new way. In our reading from Isaiah we hear God transforming the community of Israel, long in exile in Babylon – transforming them once again into the people of God. Not like they were before, but in a new way.
Isaiah says, “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.”
In the Psalms we hear of God’s love given anew to the suffering people. Today’s Psalmist exclaims,
“When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream. Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy; then it was said among the nations, "The LORD has done great things for them."”
And in the Gospels we hear of God doing a new thing in and through Jesus – God’s love poured out like lavish oil through the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus. God’s love doing a new thing in the world – choosing to be made manifest in human lives, through human hands, human hearts, human beings.
That is what Mary does, she brings to Jesus, and to us, a sign of God’s mercy and compassion doing a new thing with love. The fragrance of the oil fills the house as a sign that the love of God will fill our lives. When our lives are filled with God’s love we feel an impulse deep inside, like the impulse that propelled Mary to enter the room and anoint Jesus feet, a need to let God’s love pour out through us. Mary points the way through this gentle, humble act of love. We too are called to offer acts of love seeking to heal, as Christ’s hands and heart, the brokenness of the world.