The Anointing of Jesus

As I enter this Monday of Holy Week, my mind and heart are drawn to a singular scene.

It is just six days before the Passover feast. In the wake of the miracle of raising Lazarus, a prominent, perhaps wealthy follower of Jesus has set up a feast in Jesus’ honor. Lazarus is there, reclining at the table with Jesus and the host. Martha, having witnessed of Jesus a few days before, chooses to serve the guests in her humility and kindness. The apostles are all there, seated at the table, discussing the events of the prior two days: the raising of Lazarus, the entry into Jerusalem. The air is filled with anticipation as to what might be next.

As the feast winds down, Mary leaves the room for a moment, then returns carrying an alabaster box, something she has kept as a cherished treasure for many years. It is filled with spikenard, an essential oil coming from far away to the East, expensive beyond belief. The conversation stops as she breaks open the box and the intense musty fragrance of the nard fills the room.

Mary kneels at Jesus’ feet. The room is silent, as I hear her soft cries. I wonder what she is feeling, what she is thinking, as tears pour down her face onto Jesus’ feet. The silence in the room deepens as she carefully wipes away her tears with her hair.

Who is this woman? Is she a sinner or a faithful disciple? How can she, as clearly a woman of means so as to afford this precious ointment, prostrate herself so? How dare she touch the feet of a man in a culture that forbids such contact! Some say she is a redeemed sinner. Others say she is one who was healed of seven devils. Some insist that no, those are other “Marys”–that the one who anoints Jesus could not be such a sinner or possessed woman. I really don’t know. I’m not sure I care of it is of any importance here in this sacred scene.

She places her fingers in the broken box of ointment, slowly taking some into her hand. She touches Jesus’ feet, gently rubbing it into his skin. Jesus, looking down upon her, smiles as their gaze connects. There is deep love between them, a relationship that goes beyond words or feelings–something that the rest of us cannot even begin to understand.

Judas breaks the silence and awe of the scene. He notes the cost of this spikenard–a year’s salary–and asks why Jesus allows it, when such a sum would have fed and clothed many of the poor. Judas’ words cloud over he spirit of the room: the magical moment is threatened by his words. Perhaps he is right: it does seem to me like an extravagance, so unlike the poverty the disciples have had to endure.

Mary pauses, bowing her head in shame for a moment. Jesus leans down, lifting her head with his hand, reconnecting their gaze. Without moving his eyes away from Mary, he answers Judas. “The poor you have with you always, but not so with me. This, she has done in preparation for my burial, in memory of me. Wherever my gospel shall be preached throughout the whole world, this also that she hath done shall be spoken of for a memorial of her.

The scene in my mind and heart fades as I hear the words repeat…this in memory of me, this in memorial of her.

When and where have I heard us speak of Mary’s act of anointing Jesus? We speak of Jesus being the anointed–the literal meaning of the word “Messiah” or “Christ, but do we take a moment to think of who anointed him? Do we preach such a gospel? Or, is our gospel so focused on patriarchal privilege and future exaltation that we do not embrace the very act of connecting with god–here, now, while god is present with us? At the pivotal events in Jesus’ life, his birth, his anointing, his death, and his resurrection, the men are missing either physically not there, or entirely missing the point. Instead, Mary his mother is present, Mary the anointer is kneeling before him, and Mary Magdalene is his witness.

Perhaps this Holy Week, I can realize the presence of Mary in my life. Who was Mary the Anointer of Jesus? I may never really know for sure. But perhaps in her name, I can get some insight from its ambiguous origin: it could mean, “love”, “bitterness”, “wished-for-child”, “rebellion”…. Perhaps She means all that and more. She, who anoints Jesus, speaks without a word to me of love, of bitterness, of wishing to be part of, of rebellion from hatred and patriarchy. She anoints me with oil, and my cup runneth over.

photo credit: Copyright of the LUMO project under Creative Commons license to Free Bible Images.

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