Mary of Bethany
The smell of myrrh hangs in the air. The smell of death and burial, of fragrance, earth and worship.
Eight women make their way through the darkness, on their way to the tomb where their Lord is laid out, in preparation for burial. These eight women carry with them jars of myrrh, with which to tend to his body. This is their final act of devotion.
Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of Jesus, Joanna, Salome, Susanna, Martha and Mary of Bethany, the eight myrrh bearing women according to the Orthodox church.
Among this group of women is one who is familiar with this act of bearing perfume for burial. She has done it before. But that time she carried her perfume to anoint a living Lord, not a dead one.
Her name is Mary. Mary of Bethany.
We first meet Mary with the smell of fresh bread and the smoke of the cooking fire hanging in the air.
Jesus has come to visit, as he often does. To spend time with his friends, Martha, Mary and their brother Lazarus. Her sister Martha is in the courtyard, busy preparing a meal for Jesus and those who have travelled with him.
Who is this little family, who show up often in the gospels? We have no mention of extended family, no reference to husbands or wives or children. Given that it’s highly unlikely that they were simply unmarried, perhaps these three were young. Maybe they were orphans. Or maybe they had been married but were now widowed.
This family of three may well be vulnerable. There is a fragility of social standing about Mary of Bethany.
Her sister Martha is the boss. In fact, her name means ‘lord’ or ‘master’ in Aramaic, and could easily be her title rather than her name. It is Martha who welcomes Jesus into her home, suggesting that she owns it, controls it and certainly dictates to Mary how the household is run.
Lazarus? He’s almost an observer in these accounts, a passive onlooker. Maybe this is because he is young, but maybe it’s because the spotlight of these accounts is not on him, but on his sisters. This is not his story to tell.
They live in Bethany, a village not far from Jerusalem, in what is today the West Bank. Just as an aside, an interesting aside, it may be that this family belong to an ascetic Jewish sect based in Bethany. We know from evidence found in one of the Dead Sea scrolls that there was a hospice in Bethany for those who were ritually unclean. Could it be that this family lived in a sect known for its hospitality and care of the poor and destitute? Could this explain their unmarried status?
When we find Mary, she is not surrounded by the smell of food cooking over the fire. Rather, she is inside, sitting at Jesus’ feet.
And Martha complains to Jesus that this shouldn’t be. She should be helping her.
Is Mary simply shirking her responsibilities, like the annoying relatives on Christmas day who sit around while a disproportionate number of family members load and unload the dishwasher, peel countless potatoes and clear the table?
Or is Mary challenging the very notion that she might be confined to tending the fire and preparing the olives.
In her act of sitting at Jesus’ feet she has not only made the choice to not help her sister, she has physically stepped from one part of the house to another. She has entered into the room where Jesus reclines and converses with the other guests. She has made a deliberate choice.
Cultural expectations kept men and women in different parts of the house, but Mary crosses the divide.
Mary makes a deliberate choice.
And Martha is not happy about it.
Add to this that not only does Mary cross the social boundary, but she sits at Jesus’ feet as a disciple, as a follower. Alongside the other followers. Sitting at Jesus feet, to learn, in order that one day she might become like her.
Her challenge to her sister Martha is not simply of domestic rebellion, it ruffles the feathers of the social order of the household and of religious tradition.
And Jesus defends Mary, not Martha.
We meet Mary again when her brother dies. The two sisters send word to Jesus to come. When he arrives he declares his intentions to call Lazarus out of his grave. But, Martha is overcome with concern, that if they roll back the stone at the entrance of the grave, there will be a terrible smell. A four day old body, that can’t smell good.
But Jesus, in a loud voice, commands Lazarus to leave his tomb. And death flees, leaving behind only the grave cloths wrapped about Lazarus’ living body.
Mary stands witness to this event, to her rabbi who can command death to release her brother. How that must have shaped her thinking as the days unfolded.
Our attention then turns a third time to this house in Bethany, and I will centre in on John’s account of the events that took place, and lay aside all the scholarly debates and discussions around the differences between the accounts across the four gospels. Feel free to go and read all about that for yourself in your spare time.
Please open your envelopes and take out the card inside. Hold this card close to your nose so you can smell it as I read. You may wish to close your eyes:
From the gospel of John:
¹ Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. ² There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. 3 Mary 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. ⁴ But 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.) ⁷ Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. ⁸ You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”
⁹ When the great crowd of the Jews learned that he was there, they came not only because of Jesus but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. ¹⁰ So the chief priests planned to put Lazarus to death as well, ¹¹ since it was on account of him that many of the Jews were deserting and were believing in Jesus.
We enter the house of Lazarus this time, the one who was raised from the dead. Why does John remind us of this, why does John shine the spotlight on Lazarus? Because what will follow is about death and burial and resurrection.
Imagine the intimacy of the meal table and the small room. Food and wine, laughter, debates, difficult conversations about the rising tensions and talk of violence, all by the light of olive lamps. Martha has prepared another meal, and Lazarus is seated at the table as the host. A woman enters, bearing with her a jar of perfume. Here in John chapter 12, this woman is identified as Mary of Bethany, and she bears with her a pound of expensive nard.
Imagine her walking across that room, and kneeling at Jesus’ feet. The conversation in that room dies and all eyes are focused on her.
She pours the perfume on his feet and wipes it with her hair.
Did she look up I wonder?
There was no avoiding her. There was no pretending she wasn’t there. Her actions demanded their attention. The perfume dominated the room. John tells us the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. Filled to overflowing.
There is something about this image that I must confess I squirm over. Her act of devotion, with her hair soaked in oil, and Jesus’ feet in her hands. It makes me uncomfortable. There is something raw and unfiltered and suggestive and disturbing and intimate about this image. I am sure those in the room that night might have squirmed too.
Mary enters the space and she brings with her an offering.
The first is an offering of hospitality. She kneels on the floor, lowering herself right down so she can cradle Jesus’ feet and rub her hair over his skin.
I wonder how many of those there in that room make the connection later, when Jesus himself bent down, knelt on the floor and followed Mary’s example. With water this time. Washing the feet of his followers and telling them to do the same.
She offers herself as a servant.
She confronts social norms. In a culture in which a woman’s touch was often forbidden, especially the touch of an unmarried woman, she dares to cradle his feet in her hands. And she pours out the whole jar, not a sprinkle but the whole.
She offers her defiance.
She offers herself as priest and prophet. Whether she understood the implications of her actions or not, Jesus interprets it for her. What she has done is to anoint him for burial, to prepare the way for him, even though the rest of his disciples don’t want to face it.
“What Mary’s act of devotion has done is to dramatise a simple fact that both Jesus’ enemies and his friends throughout the Gospel have trouble grasping – that he is going away where they cannot follow. She has accomplished this without saying a word, but Jesus now says it for her.”
—J Ramsey Michaels
And Judas was not happy about it. With that money they could have fed the poor! What a waste. At first glance Judas asks a legitimate question. Why should she waste this money when it could be better used? This is not unfair or harsh, but a real question to wrestle with is it not? Judas could be seen simply as someone asking a legitimate question, with concern over wise stewardship and care of the poor.
So, John adds a note to explain the matter: in brackets, Don’t be fooled. He wasn’t asking this question because he actually cared for the poor, but because he was a common thief. You get the sense that even if it wasn’t spoken about openly, the disciples all knew.
And Jesus defends Mary, not Judas.
Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial…
Let her be.
The anointing of Jesus is an offence against practicality. But the offence is deeper, I think, for it is reported in all the Gospels. For it is, finally a story about our Lord, who is caught receiving grace rather than dispensing it. He is caught receiving grace rather than dispensing it. Pure Nard is given to Jesus in his last days, a mystery somehow revealed to Mary of Bethany. Here, on the eve of his death at the hands of the political and religious authorities, Jesus is anointed for burial by the sister of the man he raised from the dead. An interesting twist of events, if you ask me.
This account tells the story of one woman, who tends to Jesus at his point of greatest vulnerability. As he faces the reality of his death, she confronts it by kneeling in service and by anointing him for what is to come.
And Jesus defends her actions: “Truly I tell you, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her…” — Matt 26:13; Mark 14:9
I went to a funeral a few years back for a lovely lady whose life revolved around her grandchildren. As we entered the church we were given a small plastic bag with a square of card inside and told not to open it.
Halfway through the service we were asked to take out our little bags, to open them and to take out the card inside. The church space filled with the smell of her perfume. She had worn this same perfume every day of her life. But it was more than that. The space filled with her presence. It was her.
So, we sat there, not a dry eye in the place I have to say, as we remembered her. As she filled the space.
Mary of Bethany is not to be forgotten. Wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.
“Tell her story,” Jesus tells them. “Tell her story.”
Tell of her defiance, her courage and her devotion. Tell of her prophetic actions as she points to Jesus’ death. Her model of humility as she knelt and washed Jesus’ feet.
“Tell her story. Tell her story!”
I wonder if as Jesus rode into town on a donkey in the days that followed, with his feet still oily with nard. As he faced his trial death, did the smell of her perfume still linger on his clothes?