Lavender used to be called ‘spikenard’, pre-dating ‘lavender’ linguistically as the Greeks predated the Romans in classical times. The ‘spike’ part of the word refers to the characteristic shape of spike-like lavender flower consisting of multiple, tiny purple florets on a slender, elegant stem. Such flowers or others of their family are found both cultivated and growing wild in many places in the east, from the valleys of Nepal, through Greece, on into the Mediterranean, and so to us with the Romans. It was in Greece that the ‘spike’ picked up the next part of its name, ‘nard’ from a Greek word meaning ‘Semitic’ which refers to a language grouping that includes old Himalayan tongues and Hebrew. So the Greeks understood that Hebrew speakers knew this plant which we call Lavender, and it is Lavender to which the Bible writers refer when they say ‘spikenard’.
Bible mentions ‘spikenard’, Lavender or one of its essential oils at more than a few important moments, always as something precious and remarkable.
The Easter story contains the most important examples.
For quite a few nights in the last weeks before his death, Jesus seems to have stayed in the village of Bethany, which is where he had attended Lazarus and raised him from the dead.
1Then Jesus six days before the passover came to Bethany, where Lazarus was, which had been dead, whom he raised from the dead.
2There they made him a supper; and Martha served: but Lazarus was one of them that sat at the table with him.
3Then took Mary a pound of ointment of spikenard (oil of lavender), very costly, and anointed the feet of Jesus, and wiped his feet with her hair: and the house was
filled with the odour of the ointment.
4Then saith one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son, which should betray him.
5Why was not this ointment sold for three hundred pence, and given to the poor?
6This he said, not that he cared for the poor; but because he was a thief, and had the bag, and bare what was put therein.
7Then said Jesus, Let her alone: against the day of my burying hath she kept this.
8For the poor always ye have with you; but me ye have not always.
The oil Mary for the anointing might well have been worth a labourer’s annual wages. It is a sign that some extraordinarily important things are happening. Perhaps Mary had thought the
spikenard should have anointed the corpse of her brother Lazarus – but he is alive, and so she uses it for Jesus in honour and thanks for her brother’s life. She does not yet know
she is anointing the body of Jesus for His coming death.
Four days later, still in Bethany, but this time at the house of a man called Simon the Leper, the ceremony is repeated
3And being in Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, as he sat at meat, there came a woman having an alabaster box of ointment of spikenard very precious; and she brake the box,
and poured it on his head.
4And there were some that had indignation within themselves, and said, Why was this waste of the ointment made?
5For it might have been sold for more than three hundred pence, and have been given to the poor. And they murmured against her.
6And Jesus said, Let her alone; why trouble ye her? she hath wrought a good work on me.
7For ye have the poor with you always, and whensoever ye will ye may do them good: but me ye have not always.
8She hath done what she could: she is come aforehand to anoint my body to the burying.
9Verily I say unto you, Wheresoever this gospel shall be preached throughout the whole world, this also that she hath done shall be spoken of for a memorial of her.
What we suggested above is confirmed here: the anointing is a premonition of the anointing of Jesus after the Crucifixion – which, by this time, the more acute among the followers and the disciples were beginning to understand was imminent.
The climactic moment is recounted in
1Now upon the first day of the week, very early in the morning, they came unto the sepulchre, bringing the spices which they had prepared, and certain others with them.
2And they found the stone rolled away from the sepulchre.
3And they entered in, and found not the body of the Lord Jesus.
4And it came to pass, as they were much perplexed thereabout, behold, two men stood by them in shining garments:
5And as they were afraid, and bowed down their faces to the earth, they said unto them, Why seek ye the living among the dead?
6He is not here, but is risen: remember how he spake unto you when he was yet in Galilee,
7Saying, The Son of man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, and be crucified,
and the third day rise again.
8And they remembered his words…
It should not surprise us at all, that wherever people have evolved a language of flowers, Lavender represents Purity. There can be no better time than Easter to live in the recollections of Christ represented in the fragrance of Lavender.