Mary of Bethany and the Art of Sacred Listening
No human being in the New Testament, besides Jesus, listens better than Mary of Bethany. As we go deeper into Lent 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 and passionate 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….which makes me think that he came to say goodbye to the sisters, but that is another blog post).
Martha is a wonderful minister of hospitality; Mary is a deep minister of presence.
Imagine the setting…
At that time, homes were usually built around a common square. The house was probably two stories high, with a shared area for cooking out back in the square. Lamps would have burned deep into the night when Jesus and his friends were there.
There’s Martha, hurrying about, without the help of electricity or running water. (And for anyone that might criticize Martha, don’t do it here. Her ministry was sound and stable. Jesus and his friends would not have been there without it, and there was food on the table and a warm place to sleep.)
We know that Mary was not much help in that department. Last time Jesus visited, Mary spent the whole time at his feet, listening with total focus, and totally irritated Martha.
Being able to focus is a great strength—unless you are the one who is trying to cook a wonderful, multi-course meal. It would be like the basement at Downton Abbey if poor Mrs Patmore was left to do all the work completely on her own, hustling up and down those steep stairs, serving as head cook, butler, sous chef, and 14th footman to the left.
But back to Mary, who kneels at Jesus’ feet, washing them with soap and water, as any good host would do. After all, there were no Birkenstocks in those days. There were no Nike sneakers, no Timberlane boots. The toll of walking hundreds of miles on homemade sandals in dusty streets added up. Feet took a bruising; it was the standard way to welcome a guest.
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.
One of the disciples can’t believe his eyes: Judas, the one who will, in a few short days, betray Jesus. “Why was the money used to purchase the nard not sold for three hundred denari and the money given to the poor?” he asks. (John 12:5-6)
And Jesus says: “Leave her alone, Judas. For you will always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me.” (John 12:7-8)
Several days later, Jesus is killed.
This singular moment, of Mary washing Jesus’ feet, is only told in John’s Gospel. In Matthew and Mark, it is an unnamed woman with an alabaster jar. In Luke, it is “a sinful woman,” who slipped into a Pharisee’s house where Jesus was eating.
What might we learn from this moment?
First, let us value the gift of listening, sacred listening. By listening to Jesus, Mary knew that he was headed to the cross, when most of his disciples did not understand what was about to happen.
Mary knew because she had listened. She had practiced that deep and rare form of hearing that is so difficult to do, but so pure when it happens: listening, as St. Benedict called it, “with the ear of the heart,” — where we put our own thoughts aside, our own judgements, our own conclusions — and hear fully and without reservation.
Think what might happen if we too practiced the art of sacred listening with our colleagues, children, grandchildren or neighbors. I’m guessing you know a few people who do that; maybe you are good at it yourself. It is a gift, and one not to be taken lightly.
Second, Mary was a companion to Jesus in a time of deep transition. She was able to help give him the strength that he needed to take the next step. Tangibly, she anointed him in the way in the way of royalty—the same way that Saul and David were anointed by Samuel as the first kings of Israel. He was royalty, after all — the true king of the world, and he was going on a great journey. I am sure that he was scared. I am sure that he was in grief. But Mary, through the art of sacred touch and reminding him of his royal vocation, gave him the strength he needed to go forward in a way that no one else did.
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 was extravagant—and Jesus accepts her gift graciously. Yes, the money could have gone to feed the poor. 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 poured out her heart—and it was 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.
Photo: Lilly Dupuis, Camden, New Jersey. Courtesy of Barbara Dundon
A note on the photo: I was struck by both the color and the poverty inherent in this shot….it reminded me that Bethany, where Mary and Martha lived, must have contemporary equals in the 21st century. My guess is that Jesus would prefer a home like this, rather than upper class lodging.