Monday in Holy Week: The Anointing

The Gospel for Monday in Holy Week is John 12:1-11. John’s version of the story of the Anointing, it differs in significant ways from the story told in Mark’s gospel and read as part of the Passion Narrative in yesterday’s services. In both gospels, the story takes place in Bethany, but John puts it in the home of Lazarus, Mary, and Martha, while according to Mark it is in the home of Simon the Leper. John identifies the woman who anoints Jesus as Mary, the sister of Lazarus and Martha, while in Mark she remains anonymous, though Jesus says of her: “wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.” Even the timing is off. In Mark, it takes place two days before the Passover; in John six. In Mark, she anoints his head; in John his feet.

Each author shapes the story to his purposes (for contrast compare the version in Luke 7:36-50). But in spite of those differences, Mark and John interpret the story similarly. For both, her act of anointing is connected with Jesus’ burial. As I read, and then listened to the Passion Narrative yesterday, I was struck again by the importance of the women in Mark’s story. Here is one, ministering to Jesus, foreshadowing his death and burial. At the cross, women looked on from afar. Mark says that “These used to follow him and provided for him when he was in Galilee; and there were many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem.”

Again, at the burial. Mary Magdalene and and Mary the mother of Joses looked on.

The dramatic act of anointing of Jesus captures our imagination as it captured the imagination of the gospel writers. We want to fill the story out, give it some deeper meaning. So Luke’s identification of the woman as a sinner ultimately led to the tradition’s identification of this woman as Mary Magdalene, the repentant prostitute. But in Mark’s story, there’s none of that. And in John, it is Mary of Bethany, one of Jesus’ closest and dearest friends.

As powerful as the notion of a repentant sinner anointing Jesus, I find the idea of a female disciple, a follower of Jesus doing the anointing even more compelling. Those women disciples in Mark continued to follow Jesus to the cross and to his burial and were witnesses of the empty tomb.

Holy Week invites us to enter into the drama of Jesus’ last days. We do it on Palm Sunday as we wave our palms and shout “Hosanna.” We do it as we listen to the story of the passion and take part as members of the crowd. We do it day by day, as we remember the last week of Jesus’ life, re-enact the first Eucharist and the footwashing, the crucifixion and burial.

The story and its re-enactment invites us to enter into it, to take our place in the story. But it also asks us how we will participate, which roles we will take on. Will we flee and abandon Jesus like the twelve and the young man who ran away naked? Will we watch from afar as Jesus dies and is buried? Will we take our place at Jesus’ feet, anointing them for burial today, and washing them on Maundy Thursday? Where will we stand? Where will we walk? Where will we kneel?

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