While he was in Bethany, reclining at the table in the home of Simon the Leper, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, made of pure nard. She broke the jar and poured the perfume on his head. (Mark 14:3)
When Jesus remarked on this woman’s action, he said, “she has done a beautiful thing to me.” The disciples and those present in the house were frustrated and indignant at its extravagance, but not Jesus. This woman took the best she had to offer and used it to anoint Jesus. I’ve read this passage many times and have been struck by different sections. The costly devotion of the woman is remarkable. The indignation of the disciples is understandable and embarrassing. But perhaps most astonishing are the words of Jesus.
“She has done a beautiful thing to me.” In pouring out the perfume, this woman has beautifully prepared Jesus’ body for burial. She anoints his body, creates a fragrance that will fill the room and stick with Jesus for days. And in doing so, she prepares him for death. The anointing of Jesus at Bethany is an anointing for death. And Jesus calls it beautiful.
Almost every Christian tradition is conscious of the language of anointing in Scripture. Whether it comes as a part of last rites, ordination, the beginning of lent, or by the direct calling of the Holy Spirit, Christians of various tribes recognize the reality that Christians have been anointed. The Heidelberg Catechism puts it this way:
Q32. But why are you called a Christian?
A. Because by faith I am a member of Christ and so I share in his anointing. I am anointed to confess his name, to present myself to him as a living sacrifice of thanks, to strive with a free conscience against sin and the devil in this life and afterward to reign with Christ over all creation for eternity.
The anointing, or the calling, of the Christian is intimately connected with the anointing of Christ. We share in his anointing. The nameless woman in our passage anointed Jesus for burial. She did not anoint him with power and authority (though Jesus certainly had that), not to perform miracles and declare the kingdom (though Jesus certainly did this too), but she anointed him for burial. Jesus was anointed with power at his baptism, but he was also anointed for death at Bethany. When we cry out for the anointing of God, for the work of the Holy Spirit in us, how often do we ask to be prepared for burial? How often are we asking God to prepare us to die?
As Christians in a western world that feels increasingly more secular and more inhospitable to our faith, we readily clamor for the anointing of power and forget the wisdom of Lent. We hope for a new strategy to bring revival, for a new spin on the old faith, for new marketing for the church, but forget the character of our anointing. As much as we share in Jesus’ anointing at his baptism, we also share in Jesus’ anointing for burial. We are anointed for death and resurrection.
In Lent, we are reminded that Jesus was anointed for burial, that we see the wisdom of God in the cross, that we must first walk to the cross and lie in the tomb to get to Easter. We share in Christ’s anointing, which calls us daily to die to the old self and live into the new.
How are you sharing in Christ’s anointing this Lent?