Today, I have been trying to learn about nard, that jar of costly ointment Mary used to anoint Jesus in the lesson from the Gospel according to John, tomorrow. Apparently, you can still get nard–or spikenard, as an essential oil, or as a biblical anointing oil. I read around on the web and in some herbal medicine books, and bible dictionaries. Spikenard had healing properties; it’s a member of the Valerian family. It was sometimes used as a sedative, as well as preparation for burial to ease the transition from life to death. It was used for grief, for sleeplessness, and in the Song of Solomon, the bride anointed herself with nard for the bridegroom. In the field of energy healing, at least according to one article, spikenard sends energy to the places where it’s needed in the body. One writer K.C. Avnayt has a web newsletter on uses of plants in energy healing–it’s interesting reading, even when you are a friendly skeptic, as I am. She says this “Do not try to control Jatamansi (Spikenard), it follows the path of the divine in the body of the human.” Which is kind of interesting when you consider Jesus as the divine/human being.
Mary’s ointment was kept in an alabaster jar, used as a container because it helped to keep the perfume cool, and alabaster didn’t absorb the scent. The jar and the ointment together would have been hugely expensive. Anointing was used for the sick, for kings, and often for weary travelers; after washing the feet of a guest, the servant would anoint the feet, to refresh and restore. It’s a gesture, then, of welcome, as well as good-bye, in Mary’s case. It can be read in both directions: welcoming Jesus into her home, and preparing to ease his transition from life to death.
But again, such an extravagant gesture seems no more extravagant than baptism, or any other heartfelt response of the whole person to Jesus. Why wouldn’t you lavish your most precious possessions on him? The anointing is a gesture of oblation–the pouring out of oneself for others, and Mary’s lavish anointing is really a mirror of what Jesus does for us.