...We use anointing to set something – or someone – apart for God’s service. We use anointing to consecrate kings and the Messiah. Kings were anointed on their heads. Anointing Jesus’ feet could be a way of marking Jesus king of an upside down kingdom. And anointing Jesus’ head or feet is also preparation for his burial, in Matthew, Mark and John. Mark and Luke both say the oil is nard or spikenard, an essential oil harvested from the roots of the spikenard, a flowering plant that grows in the eastern Himalayas. This oil has been used medicinally for thousands of years, and was specifically used by Jews in religious ceremonies at the Temple.
In the Song of Songs, or Song of Solomon 4:13-14, the bridegroom sings of spikenard:
Your plants are an orchard of pomegranates
With pleasant fruits,
Fragrant henna with spikenard,
spikenard and saffron,
calamus and cinnamon,
with every kind of incense tree,
with myrrh and aloes,
and all the finest spices.
Though spikenard was used in perfume, some people say that its musty smell is unpleasant. Do you know what patchouli oil smells like? The classic hippy smell? Nard smells a bit like that, apparently. And Mary dries Jesus with her hair, so the oil, the smell, stayed with her for days. Some love the smell, others don’t, but nard has been honored for its relaxing power – for insomnia, for restless babies, for the sick and even the dying.
Mary went through the days to come with the smell of nard surrounding her. Maybe it evoked the Temple for her, maybe it simply reminded her of Jesus, maybe the scent of death followed her in the days – even weeks – to come.
With all the rich symbolism and power in anointing, no wonder we have these four stories of a woman anointing Jesus, each story similar, but nuanced, and all four stories carry mystery and power. Whether these four accounts describe one, two, or even more moments in time, might be one of the reasons we don’t really know what to make of these stories.
But the feeding of the multitudes, or the feeding of the four thousand, five thousand (plus women and children!) shows up six times throughout the four gospels, and we invoke those stories pretty often – I think we’re more clear on what the feeding of the multitudes teaches us than what the woman anointing Jesus teaches us.
Just what happened, and where, and how many times is confusing enough. But we’re also confused about what it means, and especially, what it means for how we are to live. Jesus tells us to feed the hungry, to give our outer coat when asked, and our inner coat too, Jesus requires his followers to care and share with the poor, and many of Jesus’ friends and followers ARE the poor. SO this moment of anointing means we’re left with some mystery about money, generosity, and extravagance. No black and white answers here.
In Matthew’s account of the woman anointing Jesus, Jesus tells everyone in the room, “Truly I tell you, wherever this gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.” (Matthew 26:13) Well, the story in Matthew doesn’t even give her a name, so it’s hard to tell her story! The woman anointing Jesus in Mark isn’t named either. In Luke, she isn’t named, but she is described as a woman “who has lived a sinful life.” And in John she is Mary of Bethany. And she’s with Martha and Lazarus, so readers usually assume this is Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus. We really don’t know – maybe there are multiple Marys and Marthas and Lazaruses, but most people reading the New Testament tend to assume that Mary of Bethany, who anoints Jesus in the gospel according to John, is the sister of Martha and Lazarus, this probably being the only Lazarus raised from the dead!
We don’t know exactly who she is, but we know who she is not. She’s not Mary Magdalene. Mary of Bethany is from Bethany. Mary of Magdala, Mary Magdalene, is from Magdala. What have we assumed about Mary Magdalene? About her occupation? For centuries Christians have said she was a prostitute. This is the problem with rumors – the true and false ones spread the same.
The idea that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute comes from misreading the stories in Luke and John. The woman anointing Jesus in Luke isn’t named, but she’s “lived a sinful life.” Doesn’t say what sorts of sins, certainly doesn’t say she’s a prostitute, but in cultures that think of women as sex objects, which I would say ours does, it’s a common mental mistake. Women can lie on their tax returns or shoplift at Target or neglect their children, but when we hear about a “sinful woman” many of our minds go to sex because our culture invites us to think a lot about sex, and think of women as sex objects.
Well, that was true for Pope Gregory the Great in the 6th century, too, apparently, since he was the one who decided that Mary Magdalene was Mary of Bethany anointing Jesus in the John and that she must also be the woman anointing Jesus in Luke, and that this sinful woman was a prostitute.
Regardless of who, what, where and when, Jesus praises the woman (or women) who anointed him, and recall what he says in Matthew, “Truly I tell you, wherever this gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her. She has done a beautiful thing to me.”
Whether she anoints Jesus to mark him king or messiah, whether she anoints him to show he was specially marked for God’s work in this world, whether her anointing was to stifle the smell of decay that would begin days after his death, Jesus calls it beautiful.
It is beautiful, maybe one of the most beautiful things, to be known. To be recognized. To be called by our name. To be understood. The woman, the women, anointing Jesus see him and understand him when others resist. She sees Jesus is specially marked for God’s work in the world, so she anoints his head. She sees Jesus ushering in an upside-down kingdom, so she anoints his feet. She sees Jesus preparing for death, so she pours oil on him in his grief and worry. She sees him and knows him....