Today’s Gospel reading, recounting the strange scene of Mary anointing Jesus’ feet with her hair, invites us in to the holy discomfort of Holy Week. At the time of the Gospels’ writing, this scene of Jesus’ anointing at dinner in Bethany and the figure of the woman who anointed him were well known features of the oral Gospel that spread around the Mediterranean. The scene appears in some form in all four Gospels, but it takes its most dramatic forms in Luke and John. So much can and has been said of the layers of meaning at work in this scene, but today let us focus on the agent of the action — Mary.
Due to a tragic set of early medieval assumptions, a tradition has persisted in the West that combines this Mary (sister of Martha and Lazarus) with Mary Magdalene and with the “sinful woman” Jesus saves from stoning. This “flattening” of three women into one has had a number of impacts: It has perpetuated the subordination of the witness of women in the Gospel narrative. It has been used to tarnish the discipleship of Mary Magdalene. And, it has colored the interpretation of this anointing scene.
Mary’s radically intimate and fully embodied act here challenges us to repent of the “flattening out” that we ourselves too often participate in. As we retrieve the fuller identity of Mary of Bethany, what else are we invited to reclaim on our journey to Gethsemane, to Calvary, to Holy Saturday, and then to the empty tomb? How have we flattened out the Gospel to fit ourselves? How have we flattened out Holy Week and the Paschal mystery to bring us only comfort and familiarity and not the sacred troubling of our world?
Appointed readings for today: Isaiah 42:1-9, Psalm 36:5-11, John 12:1-11