The Love of Mary

Week of Sunday March 13 - Lent 5
Gospel: John 12:1-8

Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 2There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. 3Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. 4But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, 5‘Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?’ 6(He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) 7Jesus said, ‘Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. 8You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.’

John has taken the story of the woman who anoints Jesus, and edited it with such striking eroticism, that it does violence to the text not to address it. Even though Luke has a woman who anoints Jesus' feet, she is "a woman of the city, who was a sinner," which reproves the eroticism. But in John 12 we have the woman of whom Luke said, "Mary has chosen the better part." The eroticism cannot be ignored; Mary's intimate devotion is praiseworthy, and Jesus defends it.

Biblical texts are strongly oriented to a male reading of the world. This text is likely to be even more masculine in its outlook and, of course, I read it as a male.

An intellectual reading
John 11 begins with these words: "Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha." The story immediately looks forward to a later event: "2Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill." This is not a narrative for first time readers; this is a text for those seeking deeper meaning from a story they already know.  The reader is being told to bring what they have discovered from John 12 back into the story of Lazarus, and to bring the story of Lazarus to the story of Mary anointing Jesus' feet.

We need to hold these verses from Chapter 11 in our memory:

Chapter 11 contains a clear confession of Jesus as Messiah. It is the trigger for his death. And it foreshadows his own resurrection.

In the reading for this week from Chapter 12, Jesus arrives in Bethany for a meal at "the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead." This story is all about dying and being raised, for Lazarus eats at the table with him, and Mary washes his feet with the nard which he says was bought "for the day of my burial." There is a strong sense of pre-ordination in what is happening.

The message so far is clear. As with Lazarus, so with Jesus: death followed by raising to life.

But then, in Chapter 13, there is another  washing of feet.

5Then [Jesus] poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. 6He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, ‘Lord, are you going to wash my feet?’ 7Jesus answered, ‘You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.’ 8Peter said to him, ‘You will never wash my feet.’ Jesus answered, ‘Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.’9Simon Peter said to him, ‘Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!’ 10Jesus said to him, ‘One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean. (13:5-10)

Those who have bathed are those who are baptised. This makes sense of this sentence: "Unless I wash you, you have no share with me." Except that in the immediately preceding story, the washing of feet is linked to preparation for death; indeed, it is an act of embalming. As Jesus is a "grain of wheat [which] falls into the earth and dies," (12:24) so must we be.

25Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. 26Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also.

This teaching is not about the timely death of old age, but about foot-washing embalming… preparation for an untimely death as soon as tomorrow if that is how things come to be. Will we accept this? "Unless I wash you, you have no share with me." Baptism is nothing if we will not accept the discipleship and willingness to approach death which goes with it. And that willingness will "bear much fruit… for eternal life."

In such a reading, Mary essentially disappears.

A sensuous reading…
There are two words to consider here; sensual and sensuous.

The terms share the root sens-, which means to arouse the senses. Sensual has referred to gratifying carnal, especially sexual, senses since before 1425. Sensuous is believed to have been created by John Milton in 1641 to mean relating to the senses instead of the intellect without the sexual connotation. (

The story of Mary anointing Jesus' feet is sensuous. By this I mean that there is a heaping of imagery, some of it very physical, which is not meant, first of all, to be explained, but to be experienced. The story is meant to be like a song which deeply moves me and opens me. Only later will I begin to list off where and how the song hooked into my emotions.

I remember friend studying music at uni who said, sadly, that she had learned music was all just technique; the spacing of notes, the choice of key; all this made us feel certain emotions. This person had learned that the only valid reading of the imagery was an intellectual one; there was nothing deeper. She had lost the gift of being moved or opened to something deeper by the art.

The music teacher, or the guide in the gallery, or even the preacher… can show us the "spacing of the notes" that I have listed  below, but the spacing is not where the meaning is. The primary meaning of the text, especially in John, is found in letting these things touch us and speak to us. There is an element of being taken outside our intellect and being acted upon.

The "spacing of the notes," or heaping up of imagery and allusion in our text, includes

1. An echo of the Genesis creations stories: it is six days before Passover— what will happen on the seventh day?

God created everything in six days and rested on the seventh. If the Passover/Last Supper is the culmination of the New Creation of Jesus, then what is happening in Bethany could be the proto event of this new creative “week”. (Peter Woods)

2. Peter Woods also notes

In the Genesis creation story the first creative act is the dichotomous duality of light from dark. Is this the same in the little home of the two sisters whose names MARtha and MARy originate etymologically in bitterness? [Martha’s name means “Who Becomes Bitter; Provoking” Mary's name means in Hebrew: “Bitter, as in a bitterly wanted child“] At the Passover meal the eating of bitter herbs is a reminder of the bondage of Egypt, yet the bitter sisters are the ones who bless not out of bitterness but out of abundance. Martha serving the meal, and Mary bringing the evening to a climax by the extravagant anointing of her Lord. At an immediate level of course this could be because of the gratitude at the raising of Lazarus, but one feels there is a more transcendent reality hovering, as the Spirit always hovers over the chaos of human suffering. Those whose names signify bitterness, are not the ones who display bitterness. No, the bitter named women are the feast givers and fragrance spillers. It is the man, the treasurer from Kerioth, the only Judean [read superior Judean], who displays bitterness in his criticism of Mary’s extravagance. 

In one sense, Woods is playing. But these are the hints in the text, and John is this sort of text. He is not writing newspaper narrative. This is how to do art. It is play which is listening to spirit.

3. Lazarus stank, but with Jesus the smell of the nard filled the whole house. There are dozens of references to "an aroma pleasing to the Lord" in the Old Testament. There is a temple and sacrifice reference here. Paul also used this image in 2 Corinthians 2:14-15

14 But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads in every place the fragrance that comes from knowing him. 15For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing; 16to the one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life. Who is sufficient for these things? 

4. The sheer amount of nard is extravagant.

A sensual reading…
And then there is the erotic imagery of anointing, of feet, and of hair. In this culture, people reclined to eat.

Almost every detail of this story breaks the social boundaries of the day. A dinner to honor Jesus ends with acrimony and arguments. A woman lies down beside Jesus. She lets down her hair, then caresses his feet with outrageously expensive oil…. (Daniel Clendenin)

The unbinding of hair is reserved only for a husband. In our own culture, caressing another’s feet … is not generally done outside the bedroom. Thus, the familiarity of Mary’s action is astounding, embarrassing, and uncomfortable for those witnessing (or reading about) such intimacy.

Mary is shameless as she steps far outside the bounds of convention, teetering on the edge of scandal.  Mary’s actions are laced with a wanton tenderness found between married couples, not an unmarried man and woman. Even for Jesus, who regularly stepped outside the social mores binding women of his time …  the fact that he allows her to perform this display of tender love is also astonishing. (Chana Tetzlaff)

One might remember here the story of Ruth: she uncovered his feet. Only an innocent does not see the euphemism!

A literal reading of this text must either ignore its erotic overtones, or become voyeuristic. But read symbolically, this text becomes a prompt for or spiritual renewal.

When I observe a woman who reflects my best self, in that she displays characteristics I wish were mine, she is deeply attractive. It is because she reflects the particular blend of sensitivity, compassion, vulnerability and wholeness to which God is calling me. But what will I see in this woman as she anoints Jesus' feet?

David Tacey says

When the untransformed self thinks of spirituality, it thinks of miracles and wonders performed for entertainment. When the untransformed self thinks of rebirth, it thinks of transgressive and incestuous sexuality… (pp162 Beyond Literal Belief)   

Men of my age too often see the beauty of a woman, or child, reflecting what could be their best self, and confuse this call to spiritual rebirth with her physical self. They think literally instead of symbolically, and make her into an object to own, unconscious of their desire for deeper life. Indeed, Tacey says "Sexual addictions are regarded by depth psychology as unconscious and perverse attempts to seek rebirth of the personality." (Ibid 155)

But Judas refuses to look. Whatever his motives about money, it seems to me that, at a psychological level, he is discomforted by this devotion that normally belongs in the bedroom. His condemnation is a projection of his discomfort, and a measure of his lack of love for, and conversion to, Jesus. He is repelled by the intimacy to which he is called. And in our age we might see in his response the material concern of money which is blind to, or afraid of, the spiritual. There is no real concern for the poor.

For my part, I could not look either. But I would weep inside, for I recognise here a deep love and intimacy of which I am rarely capable, but to which I know I am called; a capturing of my heart and affections which terrifies me as much as I long for it.

This is not a text about the intimate devotion of an historical woman Mary. It is a call to our intimate devotion. It asks if our longing for that we call God is on a level with the transcendence we sometimes discover during sexual intimacy. It is a call beyond the "emotionally absent husband" which characterises too many of us in our relating to the divine.

Andrew Prior

Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!



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