Cleansing Fire

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Holy Week Part II: Nothing to Wear?

March 26th, 2018, Promulgated by Diane Harris

Holy Week Part II: Nothing to Wear?

What was Jesus able to wear on the Cross?  The answer doesn’t immediately spring to mind from the Passion narrative texts. Rather, we remember that Jesus’ own garments were stripped from Him for the scourging, put back on Him after His being tortured, taken off again at the Crucifixion, and that lots were cast for whatever clothing survived the arduous Way of the Cross. Nakedness upon the cross was one more way of demeaning the person, already hanging there in agony. There is a ‘legend’ of sorts that the Blessed Mother was able to clothe Jesus with her own veil, but there is no substantiation in the biblical text.

Crucifix St. Mary, Rushville John Fladd, sculptor

Crucifix
St. Mary, Rushville
John Fladd, sculptor

Years ago, when I attended Sunday Mass at St. Mary’s Rushville, a local Methodist minister (who had done a dozen of us a favor by letting us do bible study in her church for 12 weeks) asked me a favor. She had never been inside the Catholic Church and asked if she might see it, privately. I was most willing to do so; thus it was arranged for a quiet weekday visit.

As I showed her around, explaining such items as the Tabernacle, Stations of the Cross, Communion rail, kneelers, confessional – all of which elicited questions — we walked toward the back of the Church and she gazed up at a piece of sculpture by local artist, John Fladd. The twisted metal gave testimony to the twisted body of Christ. But what she noticed first, and with surprise, was the nakedness of the Christ figure, and was very surprised, especially inside a Catholic Church. We had a good conversation about what Jesus had done for us, and the extent of His sufferings beyond our imagination, and the nature of the perpetrators of crucifixion, to torture in all ways possible.

By seeking crucifixion rather than stoning, the Jewish leaders wanted far more than death; they were seeking ignominy.  And we can better understand how the stripping of His garments was also an assault on modesty, against the most holy, virtuous, pure and undefiled person who would ever live. It is not an unreasonable speculation that the usual artistic depiction with a drape is for that very sake of modesty, not for realism.

So, in such a setting, let us ask again the opening question: “What was Jesus actually able to wear on the Cross?” While even our prayers today might have accompanied Him in His suffering, across the centuries, the answer to this riddle is from the material world.

Hint—the likely answer really is in Scripture, but before the Passion! The answer is, to some extent, in at least three of the Gospels.

It is sad that some people who lack faith, or simply want to contend with Scripture, identify any difference in texts as impugning the bible itself. Rather, the agreement between the texts is testimony to what God intends us to be taught. The rest may be clues to lead us deeper, beyond the historical text and to its other possible meanings. It reminds us that we need the Holy Spirit to be with us in reading and understanding Scripture.

Matthew: 26:6-13:  “Now when Jesus was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, a woman came up to Him with an alabaster flask of very expensive ointment, and she poured it on His head, as He sat at table.  But when the disciples saw it, they were indignant, saying, ‘Why this waste? For this ointment might have been sold for a large sum, and given to the poor.’ But Jesus, aware of this, said to them, ‘Why do you trouble the woman? For she has done a beautiful thing to Me.  For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have Me. In pouring this ointment on My body she has done it to prepare Me for burial. Truly, I say to you, wherever this gospel is preached in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.'”

Mark 14:1-9:  “It was now two days before the Passover and the feast of Unleavened Bread. And the chief priests and the scribes were seeking how to arrest Him by stealth, and kill Him; for they said, ‘Not during the feast, lest there be a tumult of the people.’ And while He was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, as He sat 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. But there were some who said to themselves indignantly, ‘Why was the ointment thus wasted? For this ointment might have been sold for more than three hundred denarii, and given to the poor.’ And they reproached her. But Jesus said, ‘Let her alone; why do you trouble her? She has done a beautiful thing to Me. For you always have the poor with you, and whenever you will, you can do good to them; but you will not always have Me. She has done what she could; she has anointed My body beforehand for burying. And truly, I say to you, wherever the gospel is preached in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.'”

Luke 7:37  has a narrative which also takes place at Simon the Leper’s House, but the woman in Luke is identified as a sinner. With tears she washes Christ’s feet, and dries them with her hair. She too has an alabaster flask, but anoints His feet. It is not indicated if she used it all, pouring it over His head, or only part. There is no indication this is preparation for burial, and may well be a different story.

John 12:1-8 is clearly just before the Passover at which Christ was crucified.  Simon the leper is not mentioned, nor is alabaster as the material of the flask, but John is specific about which disciple was remonstrating about the expense; note in particular his verse about the house being filled with the aroma. “Six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, where Laz’arus was, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. There they made Him a supper; Martha served, and Laz’arus was one of those at table with Him. Mary took a pound of costly ointment of pure nard and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped His feet with her hair; and the house was filled with the fragrance of the ointment…. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (he who was to betray Him), said, “Why was this ointment not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?” This he said, not that he cared for the poor but because he was a thief, and as he had the money box he used to take what was put into it. Jesus said, ‘Let her alone, let her keep it for the day of My burial.’”

The alabaster jar could be sealed, and added to over a period of time. It was, in a way, a ‘savings account’ for the dowry, like the custom of hope chests. One can see in the spilling of all the nard (or spikenard) a choice of celibacy, of giving all to Christ. Mark has the most dramatic version in this regard. The woman “broke” the flask; i.e. renouncing not only all the saved nard but clearly not going to further collect any ointment. Another view can be found here:

So, by now, all readers must have solved the riddle (if not right from the first sentence.)  Likely the only physical or material item which Christ wore on the cross was the ointment poured over Him which He noted was preparation for His burial. His burial would be in haste to avoid violating the Sabbath, with little opportunity for suitable spices. Moreover, one can imagine during all the torture, the crown of thorns pressing into His Sacred Head, that more and more of the fragrance of the ointment would have been released, through the blood and sweat and tears. Can not one easily surmise that the prolonged fragrance brought some consolation to His Heart? Everything we do, when done for the Lord, matters.

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