Thursday, July 22, 2010

The Magdalene and Her Precious Ointment

Today is the feast of St. Mary Magdalene, Penitent. It is a day to attend the Mass said in her honor, to pray St. Anselm's Prayer, and to bake Madeleines.

Fish Eaters has a beautiful web page on St. Mary Magdalene that includes the prayer of St. Anselm, a recipe for Madeleines, scripture references, and many apt thoughts and reflections on this beloved saint.

In keeping with the theme of this blog, today's post is about the plant involved in the Magdalene's anointing of Christ, which she does first in the house of Simon the Pharisee and later at her home in Bethany:
"And one of the Pharisees desired him to eat with him. And he went into the house of the Pharisee, and sat down to meat. And behold a woman that was in the city, a sinner, when she knew that he sat at meat in the Pharisee's house, brought an alabaster box of ointment; And standing behind at his feet, she began to wash his feet, with tears, and wiped them with the hairs of her head, and kissed his feet, and anointed them with the ointment."

(Luke 7:36-38. Douay-Rheims.)
"Jesus therefore, six days before the pasch, came to Bethania, where Lazarus had been dead, whom Jesus raised to life. And they made him a supper there: and Martha served: but Lazarus was one of them that were at table with him. Mary therefore took a pound of ointment of right spikenard, of great price, and anointed the feet of Jesus, and wiped his feet with her hair; and the house was filled with the odor of the ointment."

(John 12:1-3. Douay-Rheims.)
The ointment "of great price" with which the Magdalene anointed Our Lord was made from the plant Nardostachys grandiflora (depicted above), commonly called spikenard or nard.

Spikenard has pink, bell-shaped flowers and rhizomes that are crushed to produce a thick aromatic oil that is used for incense or perfume.

Spikenard is also mentioned in the Canticle of Canticles:
"While the king was at his repose, my spikenard sent forth the odor thereof."

(Cant. 1:11.)
"Thy plants are a paradise of pomegranates with the fruits of the orchard. Cypress with spikenard. Spikenard and saffron, sweet cane and cinnamon, with all the trees of Libanus, myrrh and aloes with all the chief perfumes."

(Cant. 4:13-14.)
It is interesting to reflect that when St. Mary Magdalene anointed Christ at Bethany, her "king was at his repose" and her "spikenard sent forth the odor thereof", just as in Canticle of Canticles.

19th century botanical illustration of Nardostachys grandiflora, from Wikimedia Commons. In the public domain.

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