No human being in the New Testament — besides Jesus — listens better than Mary of Bethany. As we go deeper into Holy Week and come closer to the cross, consider the unmatched gift she gave him: the deep and profound gift of listening. And it’s not just a gift for him –for through her endeavor, we learn how profoundly active real listening is.
Picture the setting, the week before the crucifixion. Most of the hard action is in Jerusalem. Yet Jesus draws strength and comfort from Mary and her sister, Martha, as he stays at their home in Bethany, only two miles from Jerusalem. We don’t know how many nights he spent there. But we do know that he was there, before and after he died (he ascended from Bethany).
Martha is a wonderful minister of hospitality; Mary is a deep minister of presence.
At that time, homes were usually built around a common square, with a shared area for cooking out back. Lamps would have burned deep into the night when Jesus and his friends were there.
So while Martha does what she does best.. making sure that there is food on the table and a warm place to sleep for Jesus and his friends, Mary kneels at Jesus’ feet, washing them to ease the toll of walking miles and miles on homemade sandals in dusty streets. Feet took a bruising; it was the standard way to welcome a guest.
But remember that Mary is highly intuitive. She is doing more than washing Jesus’ feet, for her gift is to be present, totally present. She takes a pound of nard, made from the spikenard plant, and massages it into Jesus’ feet. Some say that you can smell spikenard 1/2 mile away. It is a highly evocative scent, and this in a small house.
And then Mary does one more thing—she wipes Jesus’ feet with her hair. Wow.
What might we learn from this moment?
The art of sacred listening is an art. Real listening is profoundly active and passionate. By listening to Jesus and having the moment be about him, rather than her fears, Mary practicead that deep and rare form of hearing that is so difficult to do, but so pure when it happens: listening, as St. Benedict calls it, “with the ear of the heart,”–where we put our own thoughts aside, our own judgements, our own conclusions–and hear fully, without reservation. Her action with the nard reveals that she has heard and understood: Jesus is headed to the cross.
Second, Mary is a companion to Jesus in this time of deep transition. She is able to help give him the strength that he needs to take the next step. Tangibly, she anoints him in the way of royalty—the same way that Saul and David were anointed by Samuel as the first kings of Israel. But also in the way of preparation for burial.
Jesus, as the true king of the world, about to go on that great journey to the cross, must have been scared, must have been in grief. But Mary, through the art of sacred touch reminds him of his royal vocation and blessing, giving him the strength he needs to go forward.
Have you ever sat by the bed of a loved one who is about to die? It is sacred ground, holy ground, that place where heaven and earth touch each other, where new life is but a step away. Like the art of listening, it is delicate but incredibly important work, and Mary gives us clues in how to do it well.
Third, Mary is extravagant—and Jesus accepts her gift. Yes, the money could have gone to feed the poor, as Judas complains, but both Jesus and Mary tell us that extravagance is perfectly fine when used for God’s purposes.
After all, it wasn’t like Mary went out and bought twelve pizzas for herself. She took the most expensive thing she could find and literally poured it out for him. In doing so, she pours out her heart—and it is graciously welcomed by Jesus.
Listening. Being a companion in transition. Giving ourselves permission to be extravagant for the sake of Christ. May we, like Mary, go forward with Jesus: listening for his voice and extravagantly pouring out our whole hearts.
Artwork: Mary and Martha of Bethany. Artist: Karen N. Canton. From The Scarlet Cord: Conversations with God’s Chosen Women. Author: Lindsay Hardin Freeman