The room is set. The table is ready to receive its guests and to share its bounty with the few that gather around the table. The host, Lazarus, is present to welcome friends into his home and to serve them a dinner in honor of their friend Jesus. As the the guests arrive, the aromas of the table begin to waft through the air. The smell of the foods fill the entire house as people prepare themselves to receive the hospitality of their host. The dinner conversation creates a murmur as the members around the table engage in table fellowship and share in the meal offered to them. The sounds of people taking food, cups being raised and set back down, the smell of the food, and the warmth of being together for this final supper.
As the dinner progresses, one member of the group takes a surprising step and changes the entire demeanor of the meal. Without saying a word, Mary takes a pound of expensive perfume, for which she has paid an entire year’s wages, and bathes Jesus’ feet in the ointment. The smell of the house is changed. The aroma of the of the food fades into the background as the smell of the perfume invades the space until it overpowers all the other smells that come with a room. As she anoints his feet, Mary kneels down to complete the task at hand. Slowly, she takes down her hair and begins to wipe Jesus’ feet clean. The aroma is now not only on Jesus’ feet and in the air but also in Mary’s hair. The scent wafts through the room, and the people around the table cannot ignore the action that has just happened. Perhaps some of them are sitting back with looks of astonishment on their face. The action that Mary has taken is one of total devotion and love of her teacher. Like a student of a rabbi, Mary has shown her devotion to her teacher in a completely vulnerable way. She, like her sister Martha, has proclaimed her faith in Jesus as the Christ, the Messiah. But Mary has done so in a way that is unique to her. While her sister proclaims her faith in Jesus through her words, Mary chooses to use the words of her body to communicate.
The story of Mary is a story that anticipates the rest of the passion narrative. The washing of Jesus’ feet in John makes this anointing story unique from the stories of the anointing woman found in Mark. Instead of anointing Jesus’ head, Mary bows down to anoint his feet, and in doing so, she anticipates the actions that Jesus will take with his disciples later. Mary chooses to make a proclamation so loud that she might as well have used the first century version of social media to declare her love for Christ; she takes the risk of declaring her devotion and faith in Jesus while Jesus is still alive, and it does not take long for her to receive a rebuke for those actions. Likely before Mary finished wiping Jesus’ feet with her hair, Judas steps in to criticize her actions. Why has she wasted the perfume in such a way instead of selling it and giving the proceeds to the poor? Hmmm – I think I will come back to this question in a little bit.
What is so interesting about this particular encounter is the extent to which Judas is threatened by Mary’s confidence in the moment. She does not ask permission of anyone to wash Jesus’ feet – not even Jesus himself. She deftly moves her body and uses the entirety of herself to show her love and devotion to Jesus. In this telling, Mary is a threat to anyone that cannot exhibit the same courage of loudly and unabashedly proclaiming her love for Jesus. Mary understands that the use of her body in the moment is the only way that she can communicate her faith in Jesus, and she makes no apologies for what she does. In the end, the one character that does not use a single word is the character that speaks the loudest.
Mary is the character that speaks the loudest because she uses the fullness of her womanhood to clearly communicate the faith that she has in Jesus. She becomes a paradigm of discipleship for all of us to follow. Like the other women in John’s narrative, Mary stands in sharp contrast to one or more of the male disciples, and she does so precisely because she engages in the strength of the feminine in this tender moment with Jesus. Mary gets that to be a true disciple of Jesus requires action that involves riskiness and the potential of being rebuked. In the use of her body, Mary makes the same proclamation that Thomas makes, but Mary does so without needing any additional proof. Mary takes the risk of exclaiming “My Lord and My God!” while Jesus is still alive, and she is the first to live according to Jesus’ command to “love one another as I have loved you.”
In a very real sense, Mary becomes a metaphor for what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. Like Mary, we are called to make our proclamation so that all the world can see it, but we are called to make that proclamation with our actions in the world. Our love for God cannot simply remain within the walls of the Church, but it must be embodied in our every day lives as we move and live and have our being. Our actions are to become the embodiment of the Gospel and are to carry just as much risk as Mary does in her actions. When we embody the Gospel in that way, it inevitably means that we will be crucified by the post-Christian culture that surrounds the Church. The words of Judas will come back upon us, and we will be questioned for a faithfulness that seems rather silly in the modern age. When we understand Mary as a metaphor for ministry, we begin to see that to love Jesus as he loves us means that we have to risk all that we have in the face of certain death – whether that death is a bodily death or not. The strength of this woman to go against the grain of her own culture becomes the paradigm of strength for us to follow.
A favored saying in the Church that has been attributed to St. Francis is “preach the gospel and when necessary, use words.” I think Mary of Bethany would tell us to preach the gospel and when necessary, use your hair to dry the feet of the world. Our call to ministry as members of the Body of Christ is to use our bodies to make clear, emphatic statements of love as we engage in acts of service to the world; when we do that in the best way possible, we find that it truly is in giving that we receive. The faithfulness of Mary of Bethany is one of the bookends of the passion narrative in John’s narrative. She is the first example of what it means to have complete faith in Jesus. The other bookend of the narrative is another woman – Mary of Magdala. Both women show extraordinary strength and faithfulness in Christ as they proclaim the gospel of our Lord in very unique ways. Mary of Bethany uses her body to proclaim Jesus as Lord prior to his death, and she uses her bodily actions to prepare Jesus for his death. Mary of Magdala uses her body to become the first post-resurrection apostle. Through these two women, we get a complete picture of what it means to be a disciple of Christ, of what it means to give our entire selves – our souls and our bodies – to our Lord.
The journey of Holy Week begins through the story of a woman disciple that is one metaphor for being a disciple of Christ. The challenge for the Church is to mimic her actions in the way that we respond to things out in the world. The challenge for us is to have the same strength in the ways that we proclaim the gospel each and every day of our lives. When we find that strength, that faithfulness, we can be sure that crucifixion will follow. Tonight, Mary of Bethany is our metaphor to follow, and she illustrates just how much strength women bring to the ministry of the Church. Our call this evening is to accept the invitation to take the same kind of risk that Mary takes; we are called to go out in the world to make known our own faith in Christ, and through that faith, we are called to walk a troubled road that leads to death…and to resurrection.