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An Alabaster Potful of Essence of Spikenard

Today’s gospel reading from Mark tells us about a woman who anointed the head of Christ with balm made from the essence of spikenard, a plant illustrated  above (Nardostachys grandiflora). The version in Matthew’s gospel, like Mark’s, emphasises that this ointment was very expensive, but for Luke, the gesture was also physically extravagant as the woman first wet the feet of Jesus  with her tears and then dried them with her hair.  And John tells us that the woman was Mary Magdalen and that the scent filled the whole house. 1


So, what is the message here? Well, it has been said that:

This story tells us that whatever one Christian does in the service of God, another Christian is bound to come along and criticize it. 2

This sounds heartfelt: Emily Dickinson sounded equally heartfelt when she focused on the physical and emotional cost of producing essential oils such as the spikenard:

Essential Oils are wrung:
The Attar from the Rose
Be not expressed by Suns alone
It is the gift of Screws.

The same can be said of much great art. As Bill Nighy’s character said of Vincent Van Gogh in an episode of Dr. Who:

He transformed the pain of his life into ecstatic beauty.

Vincent himself said:

When I have a terrible need of – shall I say the word – religion, then I go out and paint the stars.

If there are sermons in stones, there are many more in plants:

Hildegaard of Bingen was a twelfth-century mystic, composer, and author of a theology that knitted together nature and spirit, cosmos and soul. She described the Holy Spirit as the Greening Power of God. Just as plants are greened, so we are as well. As we grow up, our spark of life continually shines forth. If we ignore this spark, this greening power, we become thirsty and shrivelled. And if we respond to the spark, we flower. Our task is to flower, to come into full blossom before our time comes to an end.
Lauren Artress,‘Walking a Sacred Path’

So will I build my altar in the fields,
And the blue sky my fretted dome shall be,
And the sweet fragrance that the wild flower yields
Shall be the incense I will yield to thee.


Let every Christian be a gardener so that he and she and the whole of creation, which groans in expectation of the Spirit’s final harvest, may inherit Paradise. If we Christians truly treasure the hope that one day we, like Adam and the penitent thief, will walk alongside the One who caused even the dead wood of the Cross to blossom with flowers, then we must also imitate the Master’s art and make the desolate earth grow green. Vigen Guroian‘Inheriting Paradise’

God and Man together produce all that is in nature – God provides the seed, the earth, the light & warmth, and the rain. Man provides the cultivation – weeding and pruning, harvesting and -here- distilling into essential oil. It is a symbiotic relationship which forms a virtuous circle:

What does it all mean? Well, for Julian of Norwich it was all about God’s love:

And in this He showed me a little thing, the quantity of a hazel nut, lying in the palm of my hand, as it seemed. And it was as round as any ball. I looked upon it with the eye of my understanding, and thought, ‘What may this be?’ And it was answered generally thus, ‘It is all that is made.’ I marvelled how it might last, for I thought it might suddenly have fallen to nought for littleness. And I was answered in my understanding: It lasts and ever shall, for God loves it.

And so we return to the story we began with, of the extravagance of Mary Magdalen’s gesture. Her response to the love of God was not to measure out her balm in careful teaspoonfuls but to pour out the whole contents , echoing the words of Isaac Watts in one of his best-known hymns: ‘When I survey the wondrous cross’:

Were the whole realm of nature mine,
that were an off’ring far too small;
love so amazing, so divine,
demands my soul, my life, my all.

1 Matthew 26.6-13, Mark 14.3-11, Luke 7:36-8:3 and John 12.1-11

2. Esmeralda in ‘The Ship of Fools’

6 comments on this post:

UKViewer said...

Great blog post. Bettered Tom Wright in my view. I think that the story is beautiful in full, when Mary is named.

I’m due to have my feet washed on Thursday evening, but I doubt if expensive precious oils will be involved. Mundane, soap and water, but precious in God’s eyes.

02 April 2012 06:16
Lay Anglicana said...

I think this is perhaps my favourite story in the Bible. So much is about the wonderful things that Jesus did, and how he taught us to love. Here is one of the few stories of someone offering Him unquestioning love and worship in return.

02 April 2012 06:25
Nancy Wallace said...

An absolutely beautiful post. Thank you.

Lay Anglicana said...

Thank-you very much Nancy – I will treasure that.

02 April 2012 10:03
02 April 2012 09:09
@drgeorgemorley said...

Great post, Laura!

Lay Anglicana said...

Thank-you very much, George 🙂

02 April 2012 19:36
02 April 2012 15:45

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