Mary seems to be a rather quiet woman. In the gospel of Luke she silently sits at the feet of Jesus and listens. Her self-confident sister Martha, who has no problem speaking out, probably thinks that Mary is too tame and passive. In Christian tradition Mary has been seen as a prototype of the silent contemplative. She suffers the fate of many women in the Bible. Mary of Bethany seems to be a voiceless figure who has faded into the background, unnoticed. The once clear edges of her name and story have become fuzzy within Christian memory.
Part of the problem is that her Jewish name was so common. There are six Marys mentioned just in the New Testament; the two most famous being the mother of Jesus and Mary Magdalene. Mary Magdalene, who herself has been confused with the prostitute who anointed Jesus feet, has also had her identity fused with Mary of Bethany. The two women have become so confused that artists, and even theologians, have portrayed them as sisters.
There are a number of different gospel traditions about a woman who anointed Jesus. It is likely that in their oral stage of transmission these stories "cross-pollinated" one another, making them very similar in wording and detail. So, in their written form these various stories of a woman who anointed Jesus have added to the confusion of Mary's identity, making it more difficult for her to stand out on her own.
And yet, quiet Mary of Bethany is able to stand on her own two feet. In the gospel of John she steps forward and performs an extravagant act symbolic of friendship, service, and love for Christ that's an example from which women and men of the church today can draw lessons.
Mary expresses her love for Christ by anointing his body with oil. It happens in Bethany at the home of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, who were close friends of Jesus. They invite Jesus to a dinner at their home after he raised Lazarus from the dead. We might call it a "back-from-the-dead" party. You've been to one of those haven't you? The house is buzzing with conversation. In the kitchen you can hear the clanking of pots and pans. The men are sitting in the living room talking sports. Martha, the busy host, is running back and forth from the kitchen. Maybe Martha is preparing the meal out of gratitude for the taste of the resurrection she experienced in her brother returned to life. This meal may be Martha's way of expressing her friendship and love to Jesus.
Amidst the noise of the kitchen and the conversation of the men, you would think that quiet, inconspicuous Mary would simply fade into the background. But, this isn't the case. She emerges from her room and comes to the table where the men are now reclining, chomping on figs, and wiping the juice on the sleeves of their robes. In Mary's hands is a flask containing a pound of extremely expensive perfume made from the roots of the spikenard plant from India. It's worth at least 300 denarii, which would be equal in value to a year's worth of labor. The monetary equivalent in our day would make the ointment worth between $20-60,000!
Spontaneously Mary kneels before Jesus, pours the perfume on his feet, and wipes them with her unbound hair. Can you imagine pouring a bottle of $40,000 perfume on a friend's feet! The room that once smelled of baked bread and traveling men is now filled with the smell of perfume and the sweetness of Mary's extravagant devotion.
But Judas, who pinched the pennies and pocketed a few dollars from the budget of Jesus and the disciples, doesn't smell the sweetness of her act. He considers this beautiful act wasteful. Judas is more concerned with budgets and bread, than with beauty and blessings. "Why wasn't the perfume sold and the money given to the poor?" crows Judas to the men reclining at dinner. They probably agree that Judas has made a good point. These men were probably the first puritans, oblivious to aesthetics, beauty, and expressing feelings.
"Yeah, why wasn't that expensive perfume sold and the money given to the poor?" we chime in with Judas. Can’t you just hear frugal Mennonites complaining? It's nice to do a little something for a friend every now and then, a hallmark card or a swat on the back, but this is ridiculous. That money should have been used on something more practical. Think of the MCC projects it would have supported. Wells for poor farmers in Africa. Food for starving children in Bangledesh. What a waste! Aesthetics and extravagant gifts are like flushing the church’s money down the toilet. Just think how much food a year's wages could buy for the food pantry or go towards helping the homeless.
What we wouldn't do for the poor if we had that kind of money to throw away. Why, if we had that kind of money we would surely spend it on the poor, who always seem to be with us. You can bet that we would spend our common purse on social concerns. If the church only had that kind of money, we’d spend it helping the poor, clothing the naked, feeding the hungry, supporting peace and justice in the world. Now, wouldn't we?
Jesus barks at Judas, "Leave her alone!" He's the only male who comes to Mary's defense. The tone of his voice sounds a little like the time Jesus rebuked Peter for not seeing that he must go the way of the cross. No one, not even the disciples, grasps the nearness of the end as Mary has. Jesus believes her act is fitting and interprets her beautiful deed as a preparation for his burial. What counts at this moment is not an abstract principle like "the greatest good for the greatest number" but an act of self-giving love to someone close at hand, while there was still time left to do it. Mary has performed an excessive act out of friendship and love for Jesus, who is on his way to the cross.
Mary's extravagant act of anointing Jesus' feet is symbolically thick. On one level it's an act of deep love for a friend that she performs while she still has the time. Her act goes beyond the normal bounds of things one might do for a friend. Yet, it expresses the depth of her love for Jesus. On another level it's an act of a servant. Her servant's task is incomprehensible to most women today and something no man would even think of doing. Yet, her act of anointing Jesus' feet foreshadows his own act of girding himself with a towel and washing the feet of the disciples out of his own love for them. Her act shouldn’t be viewed as a lifting up the servile role of women. This is Mary's own free and spontaneous act as a self-identified woman and disciple of Christ.
On still a deeper level, Mary's anointing of Jesus is her way of sharing in the cross. What strange and contrasting symbols, when placed together---perfume and cross. And yet, those two images---perfume and cross---side by side symbolize Mary's own unique way of sharing her love for Jesus and her way of participating in his passion. Mary has anointed the body of Christ for his burial.//
We, like Mary of Bethany, can anoint the body of Christ, while there's still time. You may be wondering how we can do this since Jesus' body is not physically present with us. We don't have to use perfumed oil to anoint the body of Christ. If we realize that that presence of Christ is still among us and Mary's act is loving service done for a friend, then there are many ways we may perform the act of anointing.
Remember Jesus’ saying "whatever you have done to the least of these, my sisters and brothers, you have done to me"? In the context in which he said those words, he was talking about his solidarity with the poor, hungry, and forgotten people. When Jesus told his disciples that we always have the poor with us, he didn't mean his followers could do nothing to change the situation of the poor. Rather, he meant the poor are always there for us to anoint with loving gifts of food, clothing, housing, medical care, and our work for jobs and justice. We can bend down at the feet of Christ present in the poor and needy and anoint them with hope.
If we truly believe that, as the church, we are the body of Christ, then we can anoint this body with our gifts, both great and small, spontaneous or planned. Don't we believe that by sharing our gifts with the church, we're expressing our love to God in Christ? Giving to Christ's body, the church, is giving to God. Our monetary gifts are gifts to God in that they share in and support Christ's body. So, there's still time for you to anoint Christ's body by sharing your gifts with the body of Christ, the church.
Can you smell the sweet aromas from the various ointments with which we anoint the body of Christ? They fill this room with their fragrance. There's the aroma of music. It fills the air in hymns and choruses and voices and piano and guitar. Such gifts are the oil of gladness to Christ's body. There's the aroma of art and beauty. It rises up in colors, candles, cross, banners, children’s drawings in Sunday School classes. There are the gifts of time and energy spent on service for Christ, which can be seen as loving gifts to Christ's body.
Have you smelled the aroma of service to the body of Christ? With Mary, we offer our gifts to the body of Christ. How sweet is the sacrifice of time spent caring for and teaching children and the adults of our church. If you have a good sense of smell then you'll sense the sweet odor of the gifts offered to Christ in taking leadership positions and working on councils and committees. Or the ointment applied to the feet of Christ may take the form of visiting older members in the rest homes or hospitals.
We can anoint women who serve the body of Christ by nurturing their gifts for ministry and pastoral leadership, though some think these gifts should be used for other purposes. Sweet smelling gifts flow forth from God’s people, which anoint the body of Christ while there is yet time. And the fragrance fills the room.
Can you smell the sweet gifts of friendship that anoint the body of Christ? Our friendships and unity as brothers and sisters in Christ is like the oil, the Psalmist says, that drips down the beard, even Aaron's beard. Friends are worth far more than the price of the most expensive bottle of perfume. With Mary, we can express our love to our friends, while there's still time left to do it.
Jean and Joan were the best of friends. They went to grade school and high school together, sold Girl Scout cookies together, took their first communion together, and lived down the block from each other. Jean loved romantic novels. Joan loved carrot cake. It was Jean who attended the Lamaze classes with Joan. It was Joan who sewed the bridal dress for the wedding of Jean's daughter. It was Jean who went with Joan to her first chemo treatment.
On a cool March day, just like the cool Spring day she was born, Joan lay in her bed at home. You could see her scalp through her thinning hair. Thin, pale arms lay limp on top of the blanket. The room smelled of medicine. The drapes were drawn, shutting out the Spring sun that knocked on her window wanting in. It was more like a day of death than a day of birth.
Then suddenly Joan's bedroom door burst open. In flew Jean with a kid's birthday hat on, tooting on a party horn that curled out of her mouth like a snake, and wheeling in this strange gift on a metal cart into the darkened room. Joan sat up straight up and her eyes opened wide, as if she had been raised from the dead. Jean walked over and opened the blinds and the beam of sunlight that was knocking on the window came in. The light fell on her gift. It looked like something more fitting for a wedding than a birthday. Joan couldn't believe her eyes. It was a huge, three tiered carrot cake. Jean thought it was the least she could do for her friend. She shouts, "Happy Birthday, Joan!"
Some friends die. Others move away. Or we move away and lose track of friends. And too often our feelings of love and gratitude for their friendship get lost in time and silence. Recently, as I looked at some fading photos and recalled old friends, I realized I most likely would never see many of them again in this lifetime. And oh how I wished I could tell them what their friendships meant to my life. One of those friends was a spiritual mentor almost twice my age, who became a friend when I was a long haired hippie musician living in L.A. He had studied for the priesthood, but dropped out and was attending Los Angeles City College in 1968, where I was studying art. He dragged me all over the Los Angeles area to encounter Jesus Freaks in Hollywood, monks in the California desert, cloistered nuns, wild tongue-speaking Pentecostal revivals, Teen Challenge, where I met gospel singer Andrae Crouch, and to faith healers like Kathryn Kuhlman.
I went to mass daily and was thinking of becoming a Roman Catholic due to Richard’s influence on my life. I never got the chance to thank him for being a spiritual mentor and what that did to my life.
After 36 years Father Richard Gant found me by googling my name on the internet. We reconnected after all those years. He finally became a priest, got two doctorates, and was working in South Texas. Recently he was diagnosed with cancer. He may not live many more years. But, I did get finally the chance to thank him, to anoint him, for his spiritual friendship, while there was time left.
We can express our love for our friends, now while we have time, in simple words or gestures, in letters or meals together, like the one with Martha, Mary, Lazarus and Jesus. These gifts become a fragrance that rises up into the nostrils of God.
Mary's act of anointing the feet of Jesus was not only her expression of love for a friend and devotion to Christ. It was a beautiful symbol of preparing the way for the cross. Her story is a fitting one to prepare us for Passion Sunday and Good Friday. And even more than that, to prepare us to follow Christ to the cross. For as Christ's disciples we have been called, like Jesus, to take up our cross. As Christ's followers, we have been called, like Jesus, to take up our towel. We have been called, like Mary, through our gifts, love, friendship, and service to anoint the body of Christ as our part in sharing in the cross.