the women of holy week: mary of bethany

During the Maundy Thursday liturgy in the Episcopal Church, we will wash feet.

There are times when it feels difficult for me to stay in the room while this is happening. There are times when I feel like I can’t even lift my head.

It is such a humbling, beautiful, vulnerable act.

To bare one’s feet, place them in another’s hands, allow a person to kneel before you and cradle your feet to be washed.

To take another’s feet into your hands, to perform this gentle service.

We wash feet on Maundy Thursday in remembrance of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples.

If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you should do as I have done to you. Most assuredly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master; nor is he who is sent greater than he who sent him. If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them. – John 13: 14-17

There is another story, another act of humility that foreshadows this one and though Jesus found it to be profoundly important, we have failed to remember it.

There was a woman who anointed Jesus.

But the accounts of who she was and where and how this event took place are varied.

Matthew and Mark describe her as an unnamed woman from Bethany who is criticized by the male disciples for wasting precious oil.

John identifies her as Mary of Bethany, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, and says it is Judas who chastises her.

Luke writes of a “woman of the city, who was a sinner,” who bathes Jesus’ feet in a mixture of perfume and tears, wiping his feet with her hair and kissing them with her lips.

In Luke’s story, it is a Pharisee who does the condemning, calling her sexually impure, “if this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner.”

Was there one instance of a woman kneeling in humility before Jesus, anointing him with oil, or was this act performed by more than one woman?

We don’t know.

But according to Matthew, Mark, and John, just days before his betrayal and death, Jesus and his disciples are eating at the home of Simon the Leper in Bethany. While at the table, a woman, who John identifies as Mary of Bethany, approaches Jesus with an alabaster jar of spikenard, worth about a year’s wages. Mary breaks the jar and pours the perfume on Jesus’ body. The house is filled with its rich woody fragrance as she anoints Jesus’ head and feet.

Everything about this incident is culturally offensive.

A woman has dared to interrupt the men while they are dining, lavishes one of them with an expensive gift, then touches him inappropriately, possibly with her hair.

I am, I confess, particularly moved by this image – the women pouring out the oil and using her hair to spread it on Jesus’ skin. It is so deeply intimate and I find strength in imagining her doing this, making herself so utterly vulnerable, expressing herself so completely, right in front of those who she knows will be quick to condemn her.

It is an outrageous act, and it’s highly symbolic.

In this world, anointing was an act that meant something. It was only done for special people, like kings, and it was done by a prophet or priest.

By anointing Jesus, Mary of Bethany is naming both Jesus and herself.

By anointing the feet, she models the love Jesus taught. She gives to him what he has been giving. She shows him that she is a disciple.

But she also shows herself to be aligned with truth and resistance.

She is the very illustration of nevertheless, she persisted.

In a culture in which a woman’s touch was often forbidden, Mary dares to hold and caress the feet of Jesus.

She loves his sacred body with her sacred body.

Her act of devotion is powerful because it’s at once completely gentle and completely rebellious.

She knows what she’s doing here. It’s deliberate and it breaks all the rules and she’s doing it because this is what her heart says to do.

She’s responding to her inner guidance. She’s dismissing what other people think, what society tells her what she should do, what culture says about who she is.

Mary of Bethany understands who Jesus is. She has, after all, seen her brother raised from the dead.

She understands where he is going, and what will happen next.

There is no other reason for this extravagant display that I can think of other than, she knew.

When the disciples rebuke her for what they see as a  waste of money, Jesus responds by saying,

Let her alone; why do you trouble her? She has performed a good service for me. For you always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish; but you will not always have me. She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial.

Jesus has been trying to prepare the Twelve for his impending death, but they don’t or won’t understand him.

They can’t imagine life without him.

Surely, this ministry will continue, they think.

Surely we are just getting started.

I believe that Mary of Bethany was listening.

I believe she heard Jesus when he talked of his death and she believed him.

I believe that when she broke that alabaster jar, pouring out all of her precious oil, she was breaking her heart and pouring out its contents. Here was a man and a teacher she loved and she knew who he was and she knew he was going to die and that nothing was the same as it had been before and nothing would again be the same.

This was an end-of-the-world moment.

Nothing else mattered.

It only mattered that she show him her love and devotion.

Because Mary of Bethany was the first of Christ’s disciples to acknowledge his impending death, Jesus praises her saying,

Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.

But we don’t remember.

We aren’t even sure of her name and we hardly ever speak it.

Let’s speak it now.