The anointing of Jesus, to me, is one of the most deeply moving biblical passages. It lends itself well to the imaginative prayer approach, such as in the style of St Ignatius of Loyola, which tends to work for me; and it is, in fact, how I first truly discovered this story. But mainly, it resonates so deeply with me because it features a woman who is about to be silenced, to be put in her place for doing something that is so unique and exuberant that it is perceived scandalous. We have all been there, or at least seen it happen. She acted on impulse, and had nothing to say for herself. The Lord did: “whenever the gospel is preached in the whole world, what she has done will be told.” (Mk 14:9). Prophetic, prodigal, unashamed; such are the actions that truly tell the Good News.
Each gospel contains a version of this story. The earlier accounts of Mark and Matthew tell it the same way, but the details in Luke and John differ. It could be that they recount separate events, or maybe each evangelist adapts the same illustration to his view on Jesus. In each account, a woman approaches Jesus at a meal and pours out a jar of expensive perfume over him; someone objects to this action, and Jesus defends it. The rest of the details vary in terms of timing (2 or 6 days before the Passion vs. 1 year prior, as in Luke); location of the house and its host (Simon the Leper in Mark/Matthew, Simon the Pharisee in Luke, and Lazarus of Bethany in John); the anointing of Jesus’ head (Mark/Matthew) vs. feet and using hair to dry them (John/Luke); and, what seems to spur the criticism (the intimacy of the act in Luke vs. its costliness, specifically pointed at by Judas out of false motivation in John). Jesus’ interpretation also ranges from connecting it with forgiveness and contrasting with the lack of hospitality in Luke, to explaining that actions done of necessity are not to be dichotomized in terms of morality.
However, the greatest discrepancy yet is in the identity of the woman. In spite of Jesus’ admonition to tell the story “in her memory” (Mark 14:9), the evangelists failed even to get her name straight (well, they were writing decades later…). She is unnamed in Mark/Matthew, and Luke considers it worth noting only that she led a sinful life. In 591, Pope Gregory I decided that it would suit the point of his sermon to assume both that the woman in Luke was a prostitute, and that she was Mary of Magdala. Neither detail is in the gospel; but, Mary Magdalene has since acquired a profession that persisted until Pope Paul VI formally removed it in 1969. Now, John’s account shares some details with Luke (such as the anointing of feet and use of hair), but its pre-Passion timing is closer to Mark/Matthew. And it is only John who actually names the woman as Mary of Bethany, the sister of Martha and Lazarus.
So, I think of this figure simply as the epitome of every woman who interacted with Jesus, received his healing and affirmation, and in turn, followed his teachings and supported his life and ministry, financially and otherwise. Saint or sinner? Probably, a bit of both. Yet, one who clearly demonstrates the prophetic understanding of Jesus’ identity and the level of adoration it should inspire. Together with Jesus’ mother and John, who remained at the cross, and the men and women who set out to bury Jesus properly, she stands in contrast to Judas and Peter, and the disciples who scattered under the shadow of the cross and wouldn’t approach the grave. Yes, each character tells us something of ourselves; but, let Mary’s example show us what we could be at our best: prophetic, prodigal, and unashamed.
Prophetic. When Mary anoints Jesus’ feet with her tears and wipes them with her hair, she anticipates Jesus’ actions at the upcoming Last Supper. When she pours out the oil infused with precious spices, she foreshadows the task of Nicodemus, John of Arimathea and the Myrrh-bearers who went to anoint him for burial. And also, she echoes the adoration of Magi, who brought the gifts of frankincense and myrrh to acknowledge the child who would reign out of his divinity and die in his humanity. These gifts and actions were not only prophetic, but also prodigal, mirroring the extent of God’s own love for us. Just as Mary broke the alabaster jar and reserved none of its contents, rather than uncorking it and saving some, Jesus has emptied himself in his Passion.
Prophetic and prodigal actions; we do tend to find them objectionable, yes. But was that the men’s main problem with her? Anointing an honorable guest was not unusual; albeit with regular oil, rather than costly embalming infusion… to wipe with the hair, however, was unprecedented. Unashamed. What kind of woman allows herself the liberty of such intimacy? Why, a sinful one, of course; one who is not above entering into such situations with many others, perhaps? No. Mary of Bethany is the only person in the gospels who appears at Christ's feet not on one, but on three occasions, knowing that her motive will be cherished, rather than misinterpreted. She did so first, when Martha did all the chores (Luke 10:39), second, when Lazarus died (John 11:32), and finally, at the time of Jesus’ own impending death (John 12:3). Jesus’ defense affirmed her openness to learn, grieve, and adore in the presence of those who would rather crush her spirit, humiliate and put her in her place. As such, God affirms all those who are unashamed to refer to him as Lover, as the mystics did (I spoke of St Teresa last week).
How close does God allow us to get to Him? As close as to become one with Him at the very center of our being; one in heart, mind, and body. It can’t get any closer than that! Recall that in Ps 67, the Hebrew word describing the way a soul “clings to God” is the same as that which describes the closest intimate and familial relationships based on the greatest degree of loyalty and self-giving. As such, the anointing of Jesus is an invitation for us to get closer to God – the one who accepts our intimacy, and never rebukes us for wanting more of Him. And so, we dare to pray, ‘Thanks be to you, my Lord Jesus Christ for all the benefits you have given me, for all the pains and insults you have borne for me a most merciful Redeemer, Friend, and Brother, may I know you more clearly, love you more dearly, follow you more nearly, day by day.’ (Richard, Bishop of Chichester). Amen.