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What is Holy Wednesday?

What is Holy Wednesday?

Orthodox Christian pilgrims fill up bottles of water from the Jordan River during a baptism ceremony in the waters of the Jordan River at Qasr-el Yahud near Jericho, West Bank, during Holy Week, Tuesday, April 22, 2008. The site is believed by many to be the baptismal site of Jesus. | (Photo: AP Images / Muhammed Muheisen)

Although less observed than Maundy Thursday or Good Friday in many churches today, Holy Wednesday highlights key moments in the lead-up to the crucifixion during Christianity's most sacred week.

Also called "Spy Wednesday," the last Wednesday before Easter Sunday is celebrated in Eastern Orthodox churches but less so in other denominations, according to Got Questions Ministries. It is called Spy Wednesday because it is traditionally thought of as the day Judas Iscariot conspired to betray Jesus in exchange for 30 pieces of silver. The beginning of Matthew 26 appears to place Judas' plotting at two days before Good Friday.

Although the Bible does not specifically mention this particular day, according to traditional interpretation of Scripture, it was on a Wednesday when a woman anointed Jesus with nard, a costly aromatic oil. 

As is described in Matthew 26:6-13, Jesus was at the house of Simon the leper in Bethany when a woman came up to Jesus with an alabaster flask of this expensive ointment and poured it on his head. The disciples thought it was wasteful and objected, arguing that it could have been sold for a large sum and distributed to the poor.

Jesus, however, pushed back: “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 proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will also be told in memory of her.”

Pure nard is the liquid form of spikenard root, which only grows in the Himalayan Mountains, was difficult to obtain, and is quite pricey. The fragrance of the oil was so strong that when Jesus was anointed, the scent filled the room. Some have suggested that in light of how soon he was crucified after that, the scent of that oil remained with him and comforted him amid his agony on the cross.

The story is recounted in all four Gospels, underscoring its importance, though Luke's account records it as taking place in the northern region, as it is said Jesus was ministering in Nain and Capernaum. The woman in Luke's account is not named. In Luke and John, it is noted that the woman used her hair to dry the feet of Jesus, an extraordinary gesture. The timing of the event and where it occurred, in addition to the identity of the woman, has long been debated in light of the differences in the Gospel accounts.

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