A reflection for Maundy Thursday, reimaging the Gospel stories of the woman who anointed Jesus, in John she is named as Mary of Bethany, the other Gospels do not name her.
I know what you think of me, even all these years later. Some of you know me as Mary of Bethany, sister of Martha and Lazarus. Yes. Jesus was our friend, my friend – and I was his friend. He knew me, the real me.
Others do not remember my name and tell my story as if I were a nobody, some unnamed woman. One, a person named Luke, even said that I was sinful.
He never knew the real me, not like Jesus did.
It’s true that I broke all the rules for women in my day. I sat at Jesus’ feet while he taught us about the love of God and how God speaks to us through scripture and through other people. Even my sister Martha grew impatient with my love of learning. But Jesus never did. He encouraged it!
It’s true, I had to make a living someway. And as a woman my options were limited. But in truth I would have done this work anyway. It is what God called me to do.
I care for people that others would never touch.
I help the poor women, even the Gentile women, give birth. I am a midwife. I help the dying and comfort them in their final hours with tinctures of herbs to soothe their anxiety and bring them peace.
In Jesus, I recognized a kindred soul, another who sees deeply into the pain of this world and yearns to heal it with God’s love. Like Jesus, I seek to bring God’s healing love to women frightened by the pain of childbirth. I soothe babies entering this world, care for children as they die too young, tend to the old taking their last breath. I bring comfort and love, not with my words, for I am a woman of few words, but with what I do. I listen, I watch, I care.
That night, that last night, I will never forget.
I was nearby and heard the noise from the dinner party. As a woman, I was not allowed in the room, unless I was willing to serve the food or dance for them, or give them my body.
But my job was neither to feed nor entertain the men.
So, no! I did not want to go in there. I knew it would cause a stir. And I was tired. It had already been a long day of tending to a woman giving birth. But, I had with me my alabaster jar of nard. The fragrance always soothes those who are agitated and scared, as surely Jesus was.
I knew that Jesus was in the room with them, eating and drinking. I knew that things were going badly for him. I knew, I just knew, that he knew this too. The Roman soldiers were watching and following him. The chief priests kept a careful eye on him as well. Even his own friends were meeting secretly with government guards and spies. I personally saw Judas meet with a few of them, money exchanged hands. Judas was not to be trusted. I know him and his family, and his greed.
I knew that the end was coming and I was helpless to stop it. I’ve seen it happen before. First the tension mounts as the Roman soldiers apply pressure and then the chief priests decide it’s better for one man to die than it is for the entire temple to be destroyed. And so it goes. Someone is given over to be crucified; one person must die so the rest of us can live in peace—their idea of peace. The chief priests and scribes will do this. And Pilate and Herod and all the others will be placated for a time. I know this because I have been in all of their homes. I have cared for their family members. I am the one called whenever there is a need to care for the suffering. As a caretaker, I am trained to use my senses. I observe everything around me. I see and feel and hear things that are not intended for others to know. And so, of this, of their intent to cause Jesus’ death, I am certain.
And my heart, filled with this awareness, was breaking.
Jesus – who showed compassion to the most vulnerable. Jesus who worked side by side with me, and helped me remember that the work I do is God’s work, even if the people despised me for it. It was Jesus who pointed out our flaws and our idolatry and yet, loved us even more. Jesus – who brought my brother Lazarus back to life. Jesus – who loves everyone. Even Peter, and yes, even Judas.
I could do nothing to stop it.
Money had exchanged hands. The deal was done.
I’d warned Jesus, and he knew it too. But not even he would change the course of these events. He would allow them to unfold as they must.
There was, however, one thing I could do. As one who cares for the dying I could go into that room and anoint him, who was to die, with my oil – my jar of nard.
My legs felt heavy, and although my walk was purposeful, it felt as though I were walking through water. Those few steps to Jesus, my beloved friend, took a lifetime to walk.
I collapsed on the floor before him and took those weary feet into my hands. Dusty and calloused – marked from three long years of walking – I gently held those feet in my warm hands and kissed them. I took one foot and rubbed it clean, massaging the nard into the tired muscles and gnarled toes. And then I cared for the other foot. Tears ran down my face. Tears fell on his feet. I could not stop myself! I bathed him in tears and nard.
Suddenly, as I was finishing anointing him, I realized I had no towel to wipe his feet, soaked as they were, in my tears.
My hair would have to do. I uncoiled it from my head and let its length fall to the floor. And I used my hair to wipe his feet and dry my tears.
I knew the others were talking. I could hear the gasps and the guffaws, the men chiding me and calling me names. I heard Judas (that fool!), suggest that MY nard should have been sold and the money given to the poor. Judas, who would have kept the money for himself, had the nerve to suggest that I was being greedy.
Later, I would stand by as Jesus washed the feet of his friends.
Just a few short hours before it was all to end and here he was loving them, the very ones who would turn their backs on him and deny they knew him.
But for now, I was going to give him all the love I had in my heart.
Quietly Jesus spoke. And I knew that he understood everything. He knew how deep my love for him was. He knew how deep my love for God is, a depth of love that mirrored his own.
And that was enough.
The powerful fragrance of that nard lingered for days.
I would smell it wafting up from my hands as I prayed,
and from his body as they beat him.
It lingered still when we took him down off the cross and prepared his body for burial.
The fragrance of love overpowered the violence of death.
Now, all these years later, I’ve come to realize that love trumps everything.
The Mary Passions are a three part series written by Terri C. Pilarski, Kate Hennessy-Keimig, and Anne Wolf Fraley. The Mary Passions reflect the last days of Jesus’ life and the resurrection through an imaginary perspective of three women: Mary, the mother; Mary of Bethany; and Mary Magdalene. Part one, the Mother is posted just before this post, and was proclaimed on Palm Sunday. Mary Magdalene will be posted for Saturday night, and proclaimed at the Great Vigil of Easter. If you are interested in using The Mary Passions please email me for permission via this blog.