In the 1st century A.D., an act of worship took place in Bethany, a village in the Mount of Olives located about three kilometres from Jerusalem. There, a woman anointed Jesus with fragrant oil. Strangely, she did not use the locally produced olive oil. Instead, she used an oil made from spikenard, which is indigenous to the Himalayan regions of India, Nepal, and China.
From the ancient Sanskrit language, spikenard is popularly known as Jatamansi. No wonder this perfume was expensive, for it had travelled far to get to Bethany. This oil, used to annoint Jesus, was foreign—of gentile origin. Yet, Christ himself defended the woman’s act of worship and the use of Jatamansi.
In the 21st century, Jatamansi is critically endangered. Similarly, colonialism and cultural supremacy has endangered indigenous practices of worship, like that of the woman at Bethany. Still, scripture points to a kingdom reality where every nation, tribe, and language will worship Christ as King. Scripture also tells us a story of cultures, peoples, and practices in constant communion with God and with each other, throughout the ages.
God sees this mosaic of worship practices—different but not deficient. Christ looks upon this exchange of worship practices and calls it, “beautiful” (Mark 14:6).
In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.”
So let me tell you the story of how a perfume from my cultural heritage anointed the King of kings.
The story is taken from the Gospel of John, chapter 12: 1—7.
Receive the word of the Lord.
12 Six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus lived, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. 2 Here a dinner was given in Jesus’ honor. Martha served, while Lazarus was among those reclining at the table with him. 3 Then Mary took about a pint of pure Jatamansi, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.
4 But one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, who was later to betray him, objected, 5 “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages.” 6 He did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it.
7 “Leave her alone,” Jesus replied. “It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial. 8 You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.”
That day, in Bethany, the presence of Christ filled the room and a South Asian fragrance responded.
Ashan Rodrigo is a Sri Lankan student at Indiana Wesleyan University studying Christian Worship. He is committed to the Holy Spirit’s work of cultivating multiculturally conscious worshippers. This devotion was shared in a university chapel service to provide a biblical explanation for making room at the Table.