Our house in Michigan was on the main street in a small town. The annual Memorial Day Parade started several blocks south of our house, and ended a few blocks north of our house. Each year, we would set out our chairs on the front lawn. Several friends and neighbors joined us, because it was a great place to watch the parade. We covered our ears as the sirens wailed; we stood to honor the flag and the soldiers; we waved at the children on fancy bikes; we admired the corvettes and Model T’s; we laughed at the Shriners on tiny motorcycles; we even grabbed a few pieces of candy. When the parade was over, we put our chairs back in the garage and had a cup of coffee as we enjoyed the rest of the day off. The next day, it was back to work, as usual.
There were probably lots of parades in Jerusalem; especially military parades when the Roman officials came into town. People were expected to show up to watch and honor the officials. They also wanted to see what was going on, just as we would today. In this case, as Pilate rides into town through one gate with his armed guard, Jesus is riding into town through another gate on a colt. His followers throw their coats and some branches on the road in front of him. Notice that in Mark, there are no palm branches, just people’s clothes and some branches from the bushes in the area.
The rumors and excitement abound because many people expect Jesus to claim his rightful throne, get rid of the Romans and Herod, and return control of Jerusalem to the Jews. So, everyone goes to take a look, whether they believe in him or want to help arrest him.
The excitement of the parade continues during the week as Jesus raises hopes. Preaching and teaching on the temple steps, Jesus predicts the destruction of the temple, praises the widow’s offering, answers questions about taxes and the resurrection, overthrows the tables of the money changers. Also during this time, Judas seeks out the Chief Priest, and the disciples celebrate the Passover with Jesus, and sleep while Jesus prays in Gethsemane. As Mark tells the story, Jesus just doesn’t stop this week; he is constantly setting the stage for his arrest, trial, and crucifixion.
The story of the anointing at Bethany is in all four Gospels, although it takes different forms in each Gospel. In Mark, the anointing takes place on Tuesday of Holy Week. The location is the house of Simon the Leper. We don’t know anything about Simon, except that he apparently had once been a leper and was now healed – so people could dine at his table with him.
In this story, Jesus is at a dinner party and a woman – an unnamed woman – enters the house. It’s possible that the house was large, and designed to host parties. It was common in those days that a dinner party would gather around a table in the center of the room, and neighbors could enter and stand along the walls on the outside of the room to listen to the guest speaker.
We don’t know anything about the woman, except that she had a vial of anointing oil. Nard, or spikenard, was used as a perfume, an incense to be burned in the temple, and was one of the oils used to prepare bodies for burial. The oil was in a small alabaster jar. Alabaster is a stone which is easy to carve, and used as perfume containers.
Perhaps the women had been healed by Jesus and she is there to thank him. She watches for her opportunity, and takes it. She opens the jar and pours its contents over Jesus’ head and hair, not just a few drops, but the entire jar-ful. The room is filled with the fragrance of nard; everyone takes notice of her actions.
Pouring oil on someone is called anointing. Think for a moment – when in the Old Testament was anointing done? ... Oil was used in the ancient world for cleaning and healing wounds. Aaron and the priests after him were anointed. So were kings – notably Saul, David, and Solomon. So, in addition to the parade on Sunday which proclaims Jesus as the one who is coming in the name of the Lord, Jesus is anointed on Tuesday. He is king and priest, anointed for his mission of healing and saving the world.
Only Jesus knows the dual purpose of this anointing, as he brushes off the comments from the disciples and others about the waste. “So many poor people could have been fed and clothed with this ointment worth a year’s worth of wages,” they complained. Jesus knew the reason for this gift, and would not deny the woman the honor of giving it. Jesus claimed this anointing as proper and just the right thing to do.
From the joy of Palm Sunday to the despair of Good Friday, Jesus kept his focus on following God’s plan. He was king and priest and sacrificial lamb; anointed and sent for our benefit, so we could hear from God’s own mouth just how much God cares for and about us.
We, too, are anointed for mission. Anointing is part of the rite of baptism. We are anointed to share God’s salvation with those around us, however we can. We are anointed and part of God’s plans and purposes.
Think, this week, about your own anointing. How do your particular gifts and skills fit with God’s mission? If it’s hard to claim your own gifts, ask someone else to tell you what they see in you.
And take time this week to read the last few chapters of Mark. Read slowly, from the triumphal entry to the end. Let yourself enter the story as a disciple and feel the emotions of the highs and lows, the joy and the fear, the wonder, amazement, and deep sorrow. Attend worship and spend time in prayer each day this week. When we feel the emotions of this sacred week, we can approach Easter Sunday and the resurrection with greater excitement.
Please pray with me. Jesus, our Lord and our Lamb, we cannot comprehend how you could give your life for us. It is beyond our imagining. Be present with us this week, as we will try to be present with you. Bless us, forgive us, and restore in us a sense of wonder at the depth of your love for us. Amen