Three Ointments

From “Sermon 87, Concerning Three Kisses” (ca. 1153)

When the Song of Songs speaks of the best ointments, it implies that some ointments are good and others are better…Therefore we say that there are three types of ointments. The first happens by recollection of sins, when we feel remorse for them and seek pardon. And this ointment is good because God does not spurn a humble and contrite heart. Moreover, this ointment is poured upon the Lord’s feet and there receives a reward, indeed a forgiveness of sins, when the Lord says “many sins are forgiven her because she has loved much.”

The second ointment happens out of recollection of God’s kindness. And rightly this is poured upon his head, because virtues are referred to God by whom they exist. This ointment, moreover, is already more dear because scripture says this about it, “Why was this ointment wasted? For this ointment might have been sold for more than three hundred denaria and given to the poor.” But the Lord approves this waste when we says, “Let her alone. Why do you molest her? For the poor you have always with you, but me you have not always.” He not only approves but he even rewards her when he says, “Amen I say to you wherever this gospel shall be preached in the whole world, this also which she has done shall be told in her memory.”

The third ointment which is composed of precious aromatic spices, just as it has been written about certain holy women who brought sweet spices so to come and anoint Jesus [in the tomb]. But any pouring out of this third ointment does not happen, because the Lord willed that it not be poured out on his dead body, but saved for his body the Holy Church. And so the first ointment is called the ointment of compunction and it is consumed in the fire of contrition. The second ointment of contrition is also consumed in the fire of charity. The third is called the ointment of loving kindness; it is not consumed but preserved whole.

St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) was one of the most influential preachers and spiritual writers of the Middle Ages. An important leader in the Cistercian reform, he was abbot at Clairvaux and an important advisor to other church leaders. He preached often to his community during the last 18 years of his life on texts from the Song of Songs, and this sermon is among those of this period. St. Bernard’s feast day is August 20. This translation is from Daniel Griggs, trans, Bernard of Clairvaux: Monastic Sermons (Athens, OH: Cistercian Publications, 2016).

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