Sensual. Tender. Loving. Discerning. How else could we describe a woman who sits at Jesus’ feet, listens carefully to his every word, pours expensive oil over said feet, then dries them with her hair?
Mary of Bethany: sensual, tender, loving, discerning—and soulmate to Jesus.
The setting: Martha’s small home in Bethany. A scant two miles from Jerusalem, the dirt-floor house was, most likely, part of a square block of dwellings that shared an inner courtyard for cooking and socializing, fronting onto a hard-packed street. Light and laughter would have spilled out both front and back, especially when Jesus and his friends were in residence. Mary, Martha and Lazarus were siblings.
Act 1 (Luke 10)
As Martha prepares food for Jesus and his disciples, Mary soaks up Jesus’ presence. Soon, Martha is simmering as much as the vegetables (and with good reason, for she is single-handedly making dinner for at least a dozen. Boiling over, she demands that Jesus tell Mary to help her, only to hear him respond that Mary has chosen “the better part.”
Contemplative by nature, Mary finds her bliss in simply being with Jesus: focusing on him, soaking up what he has to say, and letting everything else go. When Jesus gently tells Martha that she is distracted by many things, he praises Mary for making him her spiritual respite.
Act 2 (John 11)
Clearly the soul connection is a two-way street between Jesus and Mary. When Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead he is approached first by Martha, who had sent for him several days earlier. She reminds him that if he had come when summoned, Lazarus would not have died. Mary arrives and says the same thing, and falls at his feet, crying. And, in Mary’s presence, it is only then that Jesus weeps.
Why, if he knows he will raise Lazarus from the dead, does he cry? (Two days before, when told that Martha was summoning him to Bethany, he chose not to go. Rather, he responded, “Lazarus is not dead, but sleeping.”)
Jesus is clearly moved by the depth of Mary’s sorrow. This is the only place in the Bible where Jesus is recorded as weeping; clearly her emotion caught him off guard—and he responded as a friend, a soulmate. Their bond was deep. Perhaps Jesus regretted not returning sooner, knowing the pain he had caused her.
Act 3 (John 12)
Shortly before the crucifixion, Jesus and the disciples come to the little home in Bethany for dinner. Hosts (male) would traditionally wash the feet of their guests. But in John’s Gospel, it is Mary who does so…with a precious oil, spikenard, that would have cost about a year’s salary. Lovingly, she rubs the ointment onto Jesus’ tired and dusty feet.
The disciples, especially Judas, become outraged. Their anger is not altogether a surprise, for some say that the evocative scent of spikenard could be smelled up to a half mile away. And while we may take Mary’s action for granted, the sensuality involved in her action cannot be denied. Imagine these components: a woman, touch, friendship, hospitality, scent and companionship.
Jesus, however, responds in support of Mary and her sacramental action (remember a sacrament is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace; think of how well that fits here).
“Let her alone,” he says. “Let her alone. Let her keep it for the day of my burial. The poor you will always have with you; you will not always have me.”
Anointing took place for several reasons, including setting apart and consecrating royalty (e.g., Samuel anointing Saul and David long before they were crowned); marking God’s presence and consecrating worship space; healing (Mark 6:13), preparing one’s body for love (Song of Solomon 1:2-4); and symbolizing the abundance of God’s blessings.
By placing this story at the little house in Bethany six days before the Passover and less than two weeks before the crucifixion, John highlights Mary’s attentiveness to Jesus in a time of crisis. Mary sensed that the end was drawing near. She didn’t talk about it; she didn’t share it with the others, but Jesus understood her actions, understood that she “had his back.” Her actions helped give him holy strength to face the days ahead.
This narrative is classic Mary of Bethany: offering the very best she has, shutting out others in the room, concentrating fully, and offering healing to One whose body will soon be bruised and cast aside.
Mary of Bethany: Jesus’ soulmate. Thanks be to God for her witness; thanks be to God for her quiet passion and care.