On that Wednesday evening of that first Easter week, Mark writes, “While Jesus was at Bethany in the house of Simon the Leper, as he was reclining at table, a woman came with an alabaster flask of ointment of pure nard, very costly, and she broke the flask and poured it over his head” (Mark 14:3). John tells us she used about one pound of this “nard.”
First, some context: What is nard? Nard is an oil-based perfume that is extracted from spikenard, a flower that grows in the Himalayas of China, and also in the northern regions of India and Nepal. In Jesus’ day, it carried both medicinal and hygienic value. As a perfume, it was intensely aromatic and of a thick consistency, sort of like honey, only oily instead of sticky.
In our convenient world of electrical sockets and running water, we take for granted our ability to shower when we stink. This wasn’t available in Jesus’ day, so people often masked their body odors with oils. This is where you get references in scripture that talk about men putting oil on their heads (Matthew 6:17, Luke 7:46). It was a customary sign of hospitality to offer perfumed oils to guests in your home, like we might offer someone a cup of coffee or a glass of wine.
With this context in mind, imagine the results of this woman’s actions after the dinner was over. What happens when a woman pours a pound of thick, richly aromatic, oil-based perfume on the head of a man who doesn’t shower every morning? He takes that scent with him when he leaves. It coats his hair. It trickles down his beard and neck and onto his back and chest. It gets in his pores. At rest, he is a walking diffuser. When he brushes his neck, the scent is agitated and released into the air like a scratch-&-sniff sticker.
So what if the scent that filled the room at Simon the Leper’s house stayed with Jesus and also filled the Upper Room the next night? Can you think of a reason it wouldn’t have? I can’t. What if, as Jesus wound through the narrow city streets of Jerusalem, the scent of that perfume lingered mysteriously in the air like a spirit after he had disappeared from sight?
And what if, after his arrest, as he was stripped down for the cat-o’-nine tails, the scent of this Himalayan flower was released into the air with every blow, filling the courtyard with an aroma that made everyone ask themselves, “What is that fragrance? Is that nard?”
And what if the scent followed the cross to Golgotha along the Via Dolorosa? What if as Jesus hung on the cross dying, every time he pushed himself up for a breath, the nard came to life again? That would have to be one very expensive application of one very intensely aromatic perfume. Even a year’s wage worth.
Imagine that as the Man of Sorrows died on that hill outside Jerusalem, surrounded by Roman soldiers, confused disciples, grieving friends, and self-righteous men whose entire lives were one big exercise in missing the point, imagine that the scent of extravagant opulence hung in the air.
It would be just like God to do this. Why? Because the cross is the most extravagant example of opulence ever offered, and because the scent of the opulence of his gift of life still hangs in the air today. Where? In his people. Paul puts it this way:
“Thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere. For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life” (2 Corinthians 2:14-16).
Easter is more than a story. It is a present reality. My Redeemer lives. And he calls me to a new life, not only in the world to come, but even now.
May we never forget what the opulence of God makes us.
© 2017 Christ Presbyterian Church. All Rights Reserved.
Russ Ramsey is a pastor at Christ Presbyterian Church and the author of Struck: One Christian’s Reflections on Encountering Death (IVP, 2017), Behold the Lamb of God: An Advent Narrative, and Behold the King of Glory: A Narrative of the Life, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. He is a graduate of Taylor University and Covenant Theological Seminary. Follow Russ on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.