As his time came near, Jesus came forth from his retreat at Ephraim and returned to Bethany, to the neighborhood of Jerusalem, just six days before the Passover. He came for a feast at the house of his friend Lazarus. Martha was serving, as was her habit, and Mary, in accord with hers, observed the custom of the Jews and “took a pound of costly ointment of pure nard and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair,” with the result that “the house was filled with the fragrance of the ointment” (John 12:3).
To anoint Jesus with a fragrant balm is to praise him. To anoint his head is to praise and adore his divinity, for “the head of Christ,” as Saint Paul says, “is God” (1 Cor. 11:3). To anoint his feet is to adore his humanity and its weakness. To wipe his feet with her hair was to place all her beauty and vanity beneath his feet. Thus did she sacrifice all to Jesus. Him alone she wished to please. How could the hair that had touched the feet of Jesus ever be put to the service of vanity again? This is how Jesus wants to be loved. He alone is worthy of such love, of such homage.
We must note that this profusion of oil scandalized the hypocrite and served as a pretext for him to condemn this woman’s piety, which he accused of indiscretion. Judas did so to hide his envy of Jesus and of the honors paid to him, and thus showed that he belongs in the company of those who are falsely charitable and falsely devout. The most wicked men are the most severe censors of the conduct of others, whether because of the disorder of their minds, or their hypocrisy, or their false zeal. Judas had yet another reason, which was that he kept the box that held what was given to the Savior and “used to take what was put into it” (John 12:6). How loudly avarice speaks when it covers itself with the pretext of charity!
His insolent words not only attacked Mary, but Jesus as well. Yet the Savior defended her, saying: “Let her alone, let her keep it for the day of my burial” (John 6:7), for he considered himself as one already dead on account of the hour that was approaching, and he had put himself in the mind and the condition of a victim.
At the same time, he wanted us to consider what honor was worthy to be paid to his pure body, formed by the Holy Spirit, where dwelt Divinity itself, by which death would be conquered and the reign of sin abolished. What oil could ever be sufficiently fine to honor his purity? He also wanted the oil that might have served softness and luxury to serve piety, so that vanity would be thus sacrificed to truth.
“For you always have the poor with you, and whenever you will, you can do good to them” (Mark 14:7). An anointing is good for the body and can be employed not only for luxury, but also as a precaution and a remedy. Such a good office can always be given to the poor, he explained, but as for him, “you will not always have me” (Mark 14:7). It was necessary that he be served while his time remained, and then, after his departure, to console him by serving the poor, whose care he accepts as if it is given to him. How dear the poor ought to be to us, for they hold the place of Christ! Let us kiss their feet. Let us take part in their humiliations and their weakness. Let us pour out our tears upon their feet. Let us weep for their misery and be compassionate with their suffering. Let us pour out oil upon their feet as a consolation for their pain and a sweet balm for their sorrow. Let us wipe them with our hair by giving them our superfluities, and let us deprive ourselves of adornment that we might care for them.
At the same time, let us anoint Jesus. Let us breathe out from our hearts tender desire, chaste love, sweet hope, continual praise. If we wish to love and praise him worthily, let us praise him by our entire life; let us keep his word. Let us open our hearts to him and say with Saint Paul that he is “our wisdom, our righteousness and sanctification and redemption” (1 Cor. 1:30). Let us sing to him the sweet songs of the people he has redeemed: “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” (Rev. 5:12) This is what every creature ought to sing to him; this is the costly oil that we should pour forth from our hearts to anoint him.
From Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet, Meditations for Lent (forthcoming from Sophia Institute Press, 2014)