Today’s gospel for the Monday of Holy Week is the well-known story of Mary of Bethany, anointing the feet of Jesus with “a liter of costly perfumed oil made from genuine aromatic nard.” In Jesus’ time, the washing on someone’s feet carried with it meaning. While a host would offer water to a visitor for the visitor to wash their own feet, otherwise, only a servant or slave would wash someone’s feet. The same applied to anointing of the feet, considered a soothing treatment after a long day or journey. Because of these connotations, those who voluntarily washed someone else’s feet showed they were devoted enough to act as that person’s slave. The act of anointing Jesus’ feet, when taken in its literary and cultural context, displays Mary’s utter devotion to Jesus.
Many commentators, with good reason, identify Mary of Bethany as the sister of Lazarus the man Jesus had just raised from the dead. Many scholars hold that in the cultural norms, one does not anoint the feet of a living person, but one might anoint the feet of a corpse as part of the ritual of preparing the whole body for burial. In this view, hold that Mary’s action constituted an anointing of Jesus’ body for burial, and thus she performed a prophetic action.
What all agree upon is that the ointment used was very expensive. Since there is no indication that Mary belonged to one of the wealthier classes, as the meal was served by Martha rather than a servant, the ointment was indeed a major expenditure for this family. In this case, one could see the actions as one of the expression of the deepest love.
Prophetic action, expression of love, utter devotion to Jesus – all are probably true at the same time. Such is the life of a disciple – a life that is but a reflection of the One we follow. Mary’s extravagant gesture points to what Jesus is about to do: the absolutely radical giving away of self. It is an action that is not calculated or pretentious; it is not done so that others might see her devotion. Her action flows from the deepest place in the heart.
At the climax of his life, Jesus will give himself away totally, lavishly, holding nothing back.
Her gift. His life. Both are extravagant.
Such is to be the life of discipleship.
Image credit: The Ointment of the Magdalene (Le parfum de Madeleine) by James Tissot, c.1890, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons