How often in a time of severe bereavement, when some "light of the dwelling" has suddenly been extinguished, does the imagination fondly dwell on the possibility of the wild dream of separation passing away; of the vacant seat being refilled by its owner the "loved and lost one" again restored. Alas! in all such cases, it is but a feverish vision, destined to know no fulfilment. Here, however, it was indeed a happy reality. "Lazarus is dead!" was the bitter dirge a few brief weeks ago; but now, "Lazarus lives." His silent voice is heard again -- his dull eye is lighted again -- the temporary pang of separation is only remembered to enhance the joy of so gladsome a reunion.
It was on a Sabbath evening, the last Sabbath but one of the waning Jewish dispensation, when Spring's loveliness was carpeting the Mount of Olives and clothing with fresh verdure the groves around Bethany, that our blessed Redeemer was seen approaching the haunt of former friendship. He had for two months taken shelter from the malice of the Sanhedrim in the little town of Ephraim and the mountainous region of Perea, on the other side of the Jordan. But the Passover solemnity being at hand, and his own hour having come, he had "set His face steadfastly to go to Jerusalem." It is more than probable that for several days He had been travelling in the company of other pilgrims coming from Galilee on their way to the feast. He seems, however, to have left the festival caravan at Jericho, lingering behind with his own disciples in order to secure a private approach to the city of solemnities. They were completing their journey on the Sabbath referred to just as the sun was sinking behind the brow of Olivet, and, turning aside from the highway, they spent the night in their old Bethany retreat. Befitting tranquil scene for His closing Sabbath -- a happy preparation for a season of trial and conflict! It is well worthy of observation, how, as His saddest hours were drawing near -- the shadow of His cross projected on His path -- Bethany becomes more and more endeared to Him. Night after night, during this memorable week, we shall find Him resorting to its cherished seclusion. As the storm is fast gathering, the vessel seeks for shelter in its best loved haven.
Imagine the joy with which the announcement would be received by the inmates -- "Our Lord and Redeemer is once more approaching." Imagine how the great Conqueror of death would be welcomed into the home consecrated alike by His love and power. Now every tear dried! The weeping that endured for the long night of bereavement all forgotten. Ah! if Jesus were loved before in that happy home, how, we may well imagine, would He be adored and reverenced now. What a new claim had He established on their deepest affection and regard. Feelingly alive to all they owed Him, the restored brother and rejoicing sisters with hearts overflowing with gratitude could say, in the words of their Psalmist King -- "Thou hast put off my sackcloth, and girded me with gladness, to the end that my glory may sing praise to thee, and not be silent. O Lord my God, I will give thanks unto thee for ever!"
But does the love and affection of that household find expression in nothing but words? Supper is being made ready. While Martha, with her wonted activity, is busied preparing the evening meal -- doing her best to provide for the refreshment of the travellers -- the gentle spirit of Mary (even if her name had not been given, we should have known it was she) prompts her to a more significant proof of the depth of her gratitude. Some fragrant ointment of spikenard -- contained, as we gather from the other Evangelists, in a box of Alabaster -- had been procured by her at great cost; either obtained for this anticipated meeting with her Lord, or it may in some way have fallen into her possession, and been sacredly kept among her treasured gifts till some befitting occasion occurred for its employment. Has not that occasion occurred now? On whom can her grateful heart more joyously bestow this garnered treasure than on her beloved Lord. With her own hands she pours it on His feet. Stooping down, she wipes them, in further token of her devotion, with her loosened tresses, till the whole apartment was filled with the sweet perfume.
And what was it that constituted the value of this tribute -- the beauty and expressiveness of the action? She gave her Lord the best thing she had! She felt that to Him, in addition to what He had done for her own soul, she owed the most valued life in the world.
"Her eyes are homes of silent prayer,
"Then one deep love doth supersede
"All subtle thought, all curious fears,
What a lesson for us! Are we willing to give our Lord the best of what we have -- to consecrate time, talents, strength, life, to His service? Not as many, to give Him the mere dregs and sweepings of existence -- the wrecks of a "worn and withered love" -- but, like Mary, anxious to take every opportunity and occasion of testifying the depth of obligation under which we are laid to Him? Let us not say -- "My sphere is lowly, my means are limited, my best offerings would be inadequate." Such, doubtless, were the very feelings of that humble, diffident, yet loving one, as she crept noiselessly to where her pilgrim-Lord reclined, and lavished on His weary limbs the costliest treasure she possessed. Hundreds of more imposing deeds -- more princely and munificent offerings -- may have been left unrecorded by the Evangelists; but "wherever this Gospel shall be preached, in the whole world, there shall also this that this woman hath done be told for a memorial of her."
Would that love to "that same Jesus" were with all of us more paramount than it is! "Lovest thou Me more than these" is His own searching test and requirement. Is it so? -- Do we love Him more than self or sin -- more than friends or home -- more than any earthly object or earthly good; and are we willing, if need be, to make a sacrifice for His glory and for the honour of His cause? Happy for us if it be so. There will be a joy in the very consciousness of making the effort, feeble and unworthy as it may be, for His sake, and in acknowledgment of the great love wherewith He hath loved us.
"Thrice blest, whose lives are faithful prayers,
Let it be our privilege and delight to give Him our pound of spikenard, whatever that may be; and if we can give no other, let us offer the fragrant perfume of holy hearts and holy lives. That religion is always best which reveals itself by its effects -- by kindness, gentleness, amiability, unselfishness, flowing from a principle of grateful love to Him who, though unseen, has been to us as to the family of Bethany -- Friend, and Help, and Guide, and Portion. Mary's honour was great to anoint her Lord, but the lowliest and humblest of His people may do the same. We may have no aromatic offering, neither "gold, nor frankincense, nor myrrh;" but My son, My daughter, "give Me thine heart." "The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise."
Nor ought we to forget our blessed Lord's reply, when Judas objected to the waste of the ointment -- "Let her alone; ... the poor ye have always with you, but Me ye have not always." Let us seek to make the most of our Lord's visits while we have Him. The visits of Jesus to Bethany were soon to be over; -- so also with us. He will not always linger on our thresholds, if our souls refuse to receive Him, or yield Him nothing but coldness and ingratitude in return for His love. "Me ye have not always." Soon may sickness incapacitate for active service! Soon may opportunities for doing good be gone, and gone for ever! Soon may death overtake us, and the alabaster box be left behind, unused and unemployed; the dying regret on our lips -- "Oh that I had done more while I lived for this most precious Saviour! but opportunities of testifying my gratitude to Him are now gone beyond recall." Good deeds performed on Gospel motives, though unknown and unvalued by the world, will not go unrecompensed or unowned by Him who values the cup of cold water given in His name. "God is not unmindful to forget our work of faith and our labour of love." The Lamb's Book of Life registers every such deed of lowly piety; and on the Great Day of account "it shall be produced to our eternal honour, and rewarded with a reward of grace; though not of debt."
Let us bear in mind, also, that every holy service of unostentatious love exercises a hallowed influence on those around us. We may not be conscious of such. But, if Christians indeed, the sphere in which we move will, like the Bethany home, be redolent with the ointment perfume. A holy life is a silent witness for Jesus -- an incense-cloud from the heart-altar, breathing odours and sweet spices, of which the world cannot fail to take knowledge. Yes! were we to seek for a beautiful allegorical representation of pure and undefiled Religion, we would find it in this loveliest of inspired pictures. Mary -- all silent and submissive at the feet of her Lord -- only permitting her love to be disclosed by the holy perfume which, unknown to herself, revealed to others the reality and intensity of her love. True religion is quiet, unobtrusive, seeking the shade -- its ever-befitting attitude at the feet of Jesus, looking to Him as all in all. Yet, though retiring, it must and will manifest its living and influential power. The heart broken at the cross, like Mary's broken box, begins from that hour to give forth the hallowed perfume of faith, and love, and obedience, and every kindred grace. Not a fitful and vacillating love and service, but ever emitting the fragrance of holiness, till the little world of home influence around us is filled with the odour of the ointment.
"I ask Thee for the daily strength,
"And if some things I do not ask
Such is a brief sketch of this beautiful domestic scene, and its main practical lessons, -- a green spot on which the eye will ever love to repose, among the "Memories of Bethany." It is unnecessary to advert to the controverted question, as to whether the description of the anointing, which took place in the house of Simon the leper (as recorded in Matt. xxvi.6-14, and Mark xiv.3), and where the alabaster box is spoken of, be identical with this passage, or whether they refer to two distinct occasions. The question is of no great importance in itself -- the former view (that they are descriptions of one and the same event) seems the more probable. It surely gives a deep intensity to the interest of the narrative to imagine the Leper and the raised dead man, seated at the same table together with their common Deliverer, glorifying their Saviour-God, with bodies and spirits they felt now to be doubly His! Simon, it is evident, must have been cured of his disease, else, by the Jewish law, he dared not have been associating with his friends at a common meal. How was he cured? How else may we suppose was that inveterate malady subdued but by the omnipotent word of Him, who had only to say, -- "I will, be thou made whole!" May we not regard him as a standing miracle of Jesus' power over the diseased body, as Lazarus was the living trophy of His power over death and the grave. The one could testify, -- "This poor man cried, and the Lord saved him, and delivered him out of all his troubles." The other, -- "Unless the Lord had been my help, my soul must now have dwelt in silence!"
In order to explain the circumstance of this family meeting being in the house of Simon, there have not been wanting advocates for the supposition, that the restored leper may have been none other than the parent of the household. It is not for us to hazard conjectures, where Scripture has thrown no light. Even when sanctioned by venerated names, the most plausible hypothesis should be received with that caution requisite in dealing with what is supported exclusively by traditional authority. Were, however, such a view as we have indicated correct (which is just possible, and there is nothing in the face of the narrative to render it improbable), it certainly would impart a new and fresh beauty to the picture of this Feast of gratitude. Well might the parent's heart swell within him with more than ordinary emotions! Himself plucked a victim from the most loathsome of diseases! He would think, with tearful eye, of the dark dungeon of his banishment -- the lazar-house, where he had been gloomily excluded from all fellowship with human sympathies and loving hearts. His own children condemned by a severe but righteous necessity to shun his presence -- or when within sound of human footfall or human voice, compelled to make known his presence with the doleful utterance, -- "Unclean! Unclean!" He would think of that wondrous moment in his history, when, shunned by man, the GOD-MAN drew near to him, and with one glance of His love, and one utterance of His power, He bade the foul disease for ever away!
Nor was this all that Simon (if he were, indeed, the father of the family) must have felt. What must have been those emotions, too deep for utterance, as he gazed on the son of his affections, seated once more by his side! A short time ago, Lazarus had been laid silent in the adjoining sepulchre -- Death had laid his cold hand upon him -- the pride of his home had been swept down. But the same Almighty friend who had caused his own leprosy to depart, had given him back his lost one. They were rejoicing together in the presence of Him to whom they owed life and all its blessings. Oh, well might "the voice of rejoicing and salvation be heard in the tabernacles of these righteous!" Well might the head of the household dictate to Mary to "bring forth their best" and bestow it on their Deliverer -- the costliest gift which the dwelling contained -- the prized and valued box of alabaster, and pour its contents on His feet! We can imagine the burden, if not the words, of their joint anthem of praise, -- "Bless the Lord, O our souls, and forget not all his benefits, who forgiveth all our iniquities, who healeth all our diseases, who redeemeth our lives from destruction, and crowneth us with loving-kindness and with tender mercy."
But be all this as it may, that same great Physician of Souls still waits to be gracious. He healeth ALL our diseases. Young and old, rich and poor, every type of spiritual malady has in Him and His salvation its corresponding cure. The same Lord is rich to all that call upon Him. The ardent Martha, the contemplative Mary, the aged Simon, Lazarus the loving and beloved -- He has proved friend, and help, and Saviour to all; and in their several ways they seek to give expression to the depth of their gratitude. Happy home! may there be many such amongst us! Fathers, brothers, sisters, "loving one another with a pure heart fervently," and loving Jesus more than all -- and themselves in Jesus! Seeking to have Him as the ever-welcomed guest of their dwelling -- feeling that all they have, and all they are, for time or for eternity, they owe to Him who has "brought them out of the horrible pit, and out of the miry clay, and set their feet upon a rock, and established their goings, and put a new song in their mouth, even praise unto our God!"
Yes! having the Lord, we have what is better and more enduring than the best of earthly ties and earthly homes. This must have been impressed with peculiar force on aged John, as in distant Ephesus he penned the memories of this evening feast. Where were then all its guests? -- the recovered leper, the risen Lazarus, the devout sisters, the ardent disciples -- all gone! -- none but himself remained to tell the touching story. Nay, not all! -- ONE remained amid this wreck of buried friendship -- the adorable Being who had given to that Bethany feast all its imperishable interest was still within him and about him. The rocky shores of Patmos, and the groves around Ephesus, echoed to the well-remembered tones of the same voice of love. His best Friend was still left to take loneliness from his solitude. He writes as if he were still reclining on that sacred bosom -- "Truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ!"
Reader! take "that same Jesus" now as your Friend -- receive Him as the guest of your soul; and when other guests and other friendships are vanished and gone, and you may be left like John, as the alone survivor of a buried generation; -- "alone! you will yet be not alone!" -- lifting your furrowed brow and tearful eye to Heaven, you may exclaim, "Who shall separate me from the love of Christ?"