“The house was filled with the fragrance of the oil.” (John 12:3)
Holding Nothing Back from the Beloved
This beautiful passage from the Gospel of John is one of my favorite moments in the Gospels. Mary breaks open a jar of expensive perfumed oil and uses all of it to anoint the feet of Jesus. The oil that she used was very precious, expensive, and hard to obtain. It was used only for the most special occasions. Mary uses her entire jar of oil to wash not the hands or the head of Jesus, but his feet, the dustiest part of his person.
After anointing Jesus’ feet, Mary then dries his feet with her hair. The people in the room exclaim over the apparent waste of her actions. How wasteful! What is the point of this? Couldn’t the perfume have been used in better ways? Couldn’t the money she used to buy the perfume have been used in better ways? Judas says, “Why was this oil not sold for three hundred days’ wages and given to the poor?”
Jesus, however, sees beyond what might look like wastefulness into Mary’s heart. Mary loves Jesus—loves him deeply. At the depth of her being, she feels that her love will not allow her to hold anything back. She must express her love with everything in her power. She must love Jesus with everything she has, everything she is. This is why she anoints Jesus’ feet with a whole “liter of costly perfumed oil” and dries them with her hair. It is not just about the nard and her hair. It is about a total gift of herself to Jesus. It is about not holding anything back from Jesus, her beloved.
Loving with an Undivided Heart
Pope Saint John Paul II referred to this Gospel passage at the end of the apostolic exhortation Vita Consecrata (On Consecrated Life). He wrote, “Many people today are puzzled and ask: What is the point of consecrated life? Why embrace this kind of life, when there are so many urgent needs in the areas of charity and of evangelization itself, to which one can respond even without assuming the particular commitments of the consecrated life? Is the consecrated life not a kind of ‘waste’ of human energies which might be used more efficiently for a greater good, for the benefit of humanity and the Church?” (Vita Consecrata, #104)*
This is perhaps an understandable reaction to the mystery of consecrated life. As St. John Paul II succinctly asks, what is the point of consecrated life? A man or woman can work for God and the Church without being a consecrated person. So why follow the path to consecrated life?
The beautiful reality of consecrated life is that it is not about doing things for God. The work that a consecrated person does is like the blossom of a flower. The root of that flower is who the consecrated person is. The consecrated person belongs to God and God alone, and is called to live for God alone. In St. John Paul II’s words, “Those who have been given the priceless gift of following the Lord Jesus more closely consider it obvious that he can and must be loved with an undivided heart, that one can devote to him one’s whole life, and not merely certain actions or occasional moments or activities.”
We can see the anointing at Bethany as a sort of parable of the consecrated life. Mary pours herself out in the gift of herself to Jesus. Consecrated persons pour themselves out, giving all of themselves to Jesus in their daily lives and activities. With their daily prayer, they bring their jar of costly perfumed oil before Jesus. In living their community life, they anoint the feet of Jesus. By carrying out their mission they dry his feet with their hair.
Living with Unbounded Generosity
“The house was filled with the fragrance of the oil.” St. John Paul II also highlights what the gift of consecrated persons offers to the Church. “The precious ointment poured out as a pure act of love, and thus transcending all ‘utilitarian’ considerations, is a sign of unbounded generosity, as expressed in a life spent in loving and serving the Lord, in order to devote oneself to his person and his Mystical Body” (Vita Consecrata, #104).* When Mary of Bethany totally pours out her gift of the oil, everyone can delight in the fragrant smell of the oil. The gift of a consecrated person’s life brings that same fragrant smell to the life of the Church and the world. Consecrated persons are a visible reminder of God, his faithfulness, and his blessings.
We do not need to be afraid of being “wastefully” generous with God. Nothing is wasted that is given to God. Everything we have is a gift from him; everything we are and do can be a gift returned to him. Let us live in the spirit of the anointing at Bethany.
A Discerner’s Prayer
Jesus, I want to pour myself out for you. I want to give you everything, no matter how “wasteful” it seems to me or to others. Thank you for pouring yourself out for me. Help me to remember the gift of your life every time I am at Mass, and to renew my own gift to you. Amen.
* The full document Vita Consecrata (On the Consecrated Life) is available online on the Vatican's website.
Sr. Emily Beata Marsh, FSP, is a Daughter of St. Paul. She professed her final vows in June 2018, and currently serves in the Pauline mission of evangelization through the media and in the vocation apostolate in Alexandria, VA.