If you remember some of the lessons of the Old Testament, you may remember that in God’s instructions to Moses, God told Moses that Aaron and his sons should be consecrated as priests to serve God. You can read the celebration of the consecration of Aaron and his sons as priests in the book Leviticus, chapter 8.
That chapter describes how Aaron and his sons are clothed with the vestments of the office of the priesthood which include a coat tied with a sash and other robes which bear a resemblance to the vestments that are still used in liturgical churches. And then, the passage goes on to describe how Moses took some anointing oil and sprinkled oil upon the tabernacle and upon the vestments, and took some of the oil and poured it upon the head of Aaron and his sons. In that manner it was signified that Aaron and his sons were set apart for the Levitical priesthood.
This ancient act of consecration is recalled in Psalm 133, in which there is a celebration of oil flowing down upon the head of Aaron and running down his beard and onto the very collar of his robes. Apparently in the act of consecration of kings and priests, it was not just a little dab of oil. It was more like the bucket of Gatorade being dumped over the head of the coach who wins the big game.
This act of anointing with perfumed oil as an act of consecration is observed in the Christian Liturgical Tradition to this day. Every year clergy gather for what is known as the Chrism Mass, which is the occasion in which clergy renew their ordination vows, and in which sacred, perfumed oil is blessed. There is a distinction in Christian practice, as there was in the ancient world between the oil used for consecration and the oil that is used for anointing the ill. The oil for consecration is generally perfumed and it is called the oil of Chrism.
The oil of Chrism is used for the traditional blessing of chalices, patens and ciboria, where in a manner similar to Moses, the interior of the vessels is covered with the oil of Chrism. It is used for the consecration of Bishops, the ordinations of priests and deacons. The oil of Chrism is often used in the rite of confirmation, and sometimes in the rite of baptism.
The root of the word Chrism is found in the word charism, or charismatic. It is also the foundation of the word “Christos” which was not Jesus’ last name, but a title which literally means “the one anointed by God himself.”
The use of the oil is an outward sign that something is being set apart—consecrated for holy use. In confirmation, the shocking symbolism is that the confirmand is being consecrated for lay ministry by Him who has made us “kings and priests unto God our Father.”
All of this background is essential for understanding today’s Gospel. It seems like a bizarre incident in the life of Jesus that a woman named Mary would come in, bringing an outlandishly expensive luxury item which ordinarily would be used just a little at a time, take the container, dump it over Jesus feet and begin to wipe up the oily and aromatic mess with her hair. It sounds a little weird, a little off putting, a thing that would have made any one of us feel uncomfortable had we been there to witness it in person. In the face of Mary’s loving act, most of us would probably react with the pragmatism of Judas.
Regarding the pragmatism of Judas: I was about ten when my grandfather gave me my first film camera. I wanted to take a picture of him. He hated having his picture taken. So one day when he was engaged in some work, sawing a board with a hand saw, I snapped his picture. He was upset with me and wanted to know “why I was wasting film.” “I wouldn’t have gotten you the camera if I thought you were going to waste film like that!” Guess what? After all these years it is the only picture I have of my grandfather. I’m rather glad now that I “wasted” the film.
Mary’s loving act goes beyond the act of kindness for one who is about to die. She is essentially consecrating Jesus as Lord, as Savior. She proclaims Him as the Holy One of God, the Messiah. She makes a statement of faith: Jesus is my king and my priest; Jesus is not just “my” king and priest– He is King and He is Priest. His death, which all could foresee, is the Priestly sacrifice over which He will preside.
For Mary this act is much like the confession of Peter. “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.”
In a few days, we will be celebrating the mystery by which God saves us, which is called the Paschal Mystery. We too proclaim Jesus as the anointed one, the Christ, the King and Priest who gave His life for us that we might receive the fullness of grace upon grace. How do we show Him our act of love? How do we proclaim Him as Savior and Lord?