Greetings, SBT Readers!
After a long day of emptying out my two storage lockers in anticipation of moving at the end of April, nothing inspired me until around midnight when the Anointing at Bethany summoned me. I hope you find this reflection helpful as you enter this holiest of seasons!
Blessings for Holy Week!
When he was in Bethany reclining at table in the house of Simon the leper, a woman came with an alabaster jar of perfumed oil, costly genuine spikenard. She broke the alabaster jar and poured it on his head. There were some who were indignant.
“Why has there been this waste of perfumed oil?
It could have been sold for more than three hundred days’ wages and the money given to the poor.”
They were infuriated with her. Jesus said, “Let her alone.
Why do you make trouble for her? She has done a good thing for me. The poor you will always have with you, and whenever you wish you can do good to them, but you will not always have me. She has done what she could. She has anticipated anointing my body for burial."
The Passion Narratives
There are countless memorable moments in the Passion Narratives, each inviting us to pause, reflect and find meaning. We know the script, following it scene by scene, aware of all the characters and their contribution to the drama. We observe Jesus' triumphant entry into Jerusalem, rejoicing with the adoring crowds; we smile at Peter's discomfort when Jesus insists on washing his feet; we bow our heads in reverence when Jesus breaks bread with his friends; we are overcome with pity when we witness Jesus' agony in the garden; we shudder at the false kiss, the crack of the whip, the bloody crown of thorns, the mockery and hatred, the steep road to Golgotha...
The Anointing in Bethany
But despite our familiarity with the various scenes, we seldom pay much attention to an event that seems to have precipitated Judas's treachery: the Anointing in Bethany. We tend to view this scene more as a prelude to the Passion Narratives than as an integral part of the story. Maybe this is because there are conflicting interpretations of this passage; or perhaps preachers and scriptural commentators tend to overlook the narrative because it focuses on the unspeakable --a woman's liturgical action! Most Christians interpret the story through the lens of an episode in Luke's Gospel in which a sinful woman bathes Jesus' feet with tears of repentance, wipes them dry with her tears, and then anoints them with perfume from an alabaster jar. Luke does not reveal this woman's name but he places the episode in the house of a Pharisee named Simon, using it as a commentary on hospitality, love, and forgiveness (Lk 7:36-50). There is a brief reference (Lk 8:2) that mentions Mary of Magdala as a disciple of Jesus who had been possessed by seven demons, but Luke never claims that this Mary and the sinful woman are identical.
Conflicting Scriptural Accounts
While Eastern Christianity has held that Mary of Magdala and Mary of Bethany (Lazarus' sister) are two separate women, Western Christianity has merged the two: Mary of Magdala= the sister of Lazarus= the sinful woman= the one who bathes Jesus' feet with her tears and wipes them with her hair= the one who breaks her alabaster jar and anoints his feet.
But the gospel accounts tell a different story:
Mt 26:6-13 and Mk 14:3-9. A nameless woman in the house of Simon the Leper in Bethany anoints Jesus' head with costly perfume. Jesus explains that she has prepared him for burial.
in anticipation of his death; however, pouring oil over someone's head also indicates that the person is now set aside for God, as a priest, prophet, or king. It is also a sign of healing.
Jn 12: 1-8. Mary of Bethany, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, anoints Jesus' feet with costly perfumed oil and dries his feet with her hair. As in Mt 26 and Mk 14, Jesus interprets her action as a preparation for his burial.
The Anointing and The Passion
Let's now return to the Passion Narratives. While, early on in Luke's Gospel, the anointing story is entitled The Pardon of the Sinful Woman, in Matthew, Mark, and John, the title is The Anointing at Bethany. This suggests that the early Christian community did indeed interpret the woman's action as a liturgical ritual. In all three accounts, the woman prepares Jesus for burial but Matthew and Mark's accounts also point to ritual sanctification, a sacramental moment acknowledging Divine blessing, spiritual calling, and Heavenly endorsement. This means that Jesus will enter his Passion and Death not as a hapless victim but as one ordained by God, bearing "the oil of gladness" (Heb 1:9), "anointed with the Holy Spirit and power" (Acts 10:38). The woman's actions, then, set the stage for events to come. Jesus will face his Passion anointed with the Presence of God, assured of the righteousness of his path and of his ultimate victory. Even in moments of utter agony and seeming abandonment, he will still be God's Anointed One, destined to be healed of his wounds in the Divine Embrace.
The Disciples and The Anointing
In Matthew and Mark, the disciples are outraged by the woman's extravagance; in John's Gospel, it is Judas who expresses fury. Then, as now, spikenard was a priceless commodity. On eBay today, a 169 fluid ounce container is currently listed for $5,685.22; according to the disciples, it represents 300 days' labor, a sum of money that could have been given to the poor.
The disciples' indignation reveals that they have completely missed the symbolic significance of the woman's actions; as usual, they are "clueless." Worse still, their focus on the material indicates that, at some level, they don't feel Jesus is worthy of this extraordinary act of love. Perhaps they cringe at the woman's physical proximity to Jesus since pouring oil over his head would definitely involve standing close to him; in John's account, Mary's gesture is highly sensual; it involves physical touch as well as the intimacy of using her long hair to dry Jesus' feet.
Is it this that puts Judas over the edge, sending him scurrying to the chief priests to hand over Jesus in exchange for money? Is he motivated by greed, misogyny, or both? Is he jealous when Jesus says, "Amen, I say to you, wherever the gospel is proclaimed to the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her” (Mk. 14:9). In both Matthew and Mark, The Anointing at Bethany is immediately followed by The Betrayal by Judas, beginning with the words, "Then Judas Iscariot, one of the Twelve, went off to the chief priests..."(Mk 14:10).
And so the Passion is set in motion by a fragmented alabaster jar and by love that spills out in abundance...