Myrrh in Bethany - Monday Holy Week

John's Gospel tells of the exorbitant use of myrrh at a banquet Lazarus, Mary and Martha put on for Jesus.  In the course of this celebration, Mary anointed Jesus' feet with precious myrrh, then wiped his feet clean with her feet.  This gesture was criticized by Judas for its cost: could not the money have been better used to help the poor?  For the Evangelist, this moment was enough; he tells us nothing else about the banquet.  Why this story?

This story appears before Jesus enters Jerusalem prophetically, in the symbol of a king.  The value of the story lies in the extreme value of a perfume of such value as myrrh.  Myrrh was harvested from a plant in lands far from Israel; the rarity, labor costs and transportation expenses - all this made myrrh a very costly item, available in quantity only to the very wealthy and royalty.  It is a type of perfume that the less-than-wealthy can afford only for such occasions as burial.

Advertisement

There is no doubt in the minds of John's readers that Mary's gesture was extremely expensive and would raise eyebrows.  But the point that Mary and John make is simply that Jesus deserves this myrrh.  He deserves it, as far as Mary is concerned, because of who she thinks Jesus is.  To see Lazarus alive is to see Jesus in ever new light, a light that calls one to look steadfastly for the full identity of his person.  And Jesus deserves myrrh, as John understands it, as a precious prophecy of the burial of the Lord.  Following this story is the coming of the King to Jerusalem - to die, as John well knows.  John is preoccupied with signs, the deepest meanings of events.  Here is one gesture, fleeting no doubt, that signals something lasting and influential, like the odor of the myrrh.  It is the Lord to whom Mary gives witness, and this makes the myrrh, costly as it is, very appropriate if not even unworthy of the Lord who stands before all in John's story.

John Kilgallen, SJ

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Mary Puthawala
8 years 6 months ago
Dera Fr. Kilgallen,
Didn't Mary wipe Jesus' feet with her hair? Otherwise, lovely post, as they always are. 
Mary Puthawala
8 years 6 months ago
And I can't even spell "Dear!" Oh, my.

Advertisement

The latest from america

 Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, then nuncio to the United States, and then-Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick of Washington, are seen in a combination photo during the beatification Mass of Blessed Miriam Teresa Demjanovich at the Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart in Newark, N.J., Oct. 4, 2014. (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz)
In this third letter Archbishop Viganò no longer insists, as he did so forcefully in his first letter, that the restrictions that he claimed Benedict XVI had imposed on Archbishop McCarrick—one he alleges that Pope Francis later lifted—can be understood as “sanctions.”
Gerard O’ConnellOctober 19, 2018
Kevin Clarke tells us about his reporting from Iraq.
Olga SeguraOctober 19, 2018
For U.S. Catholics, every synod is also a valuable reminder—and corrective—that it is not all about us.
The EditorsOctober 19, 2018
For decades, the U.S. church has gifted its public servants with the social teachings and magisterium of the church.
Christopher Jolly HaleOctober 19, 2018