Reflection for April 6
Readings: Is 42: 1-7; Jn 12:1-11
Today we hear the moving story of the woman who anointed the feet of Jesus with genuine nard and wiped them with her hair. This story is very similar to what St. Luke tells us in the seventh chapter of his Gospel, but the detail St. John gives us helps us to know the woman is Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus. Luke places the dinner at the home of a Pharisee named Simon, but St. John does not tell us where the dinner was located. The details are important because, although it is possible, I would not assume that two different women performed this same act of repentance/kindness toward our Lord.
Many people scoff at the idea that Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, can be the same person we know of as Mary Magdalene. In part, this is because it would make more sense to refer to Mary as “Mary of Bethany” whereas Mary Magdalene means “Mary of Magdala.” There are several instances in the Gospels where we hear about a sinful woman, so many people have tried to put these references together and claim them to be about Mary Magdalene. While the Scriptures do not actually tell us this, it does makes sense when we see the references to similar activities.
Regardless of whether there is one woman or many, we know what the gesture means. In the ancient world, because modesty was not an issue, a woman’s hair was what was used to attract men. The longer and shinier the hair, the more attractive it was thought to be. Contrast this with people’s feet in the ancient world. They did not have pavement like we have, not did they have sewer systems like ours. The streets were often made of stone, but they would still have been very dusty and, worse than that, they would have been filthy from the waste water and other trash that would have been thrown out into the streets.
This is necessary background information to understand the radical nature of the gesture Mary performed. First, recall that washing someone’s feet was considered beneath human dignity by the Jewish people. Not even a slave could be required to wash a master’s feet. This is important information to keep in mind for what we will hear on Thursday about when our Lord washed the feet of the Apostles and the exchange He had with Peter. Back to the point at hand, for Mary to be drying our Lord’s feet with her hair is a gesture of conversion. She had lived a life of sin, using her hair to attract men, but now her hair was being used for something the people at the dinner would have understood immediately.
In one way, what she was doing was gross; imagine what her hair would have looked like and smelled like. In another way, it was extravagant. The oil she used was very expensive, so much so that even Judas Iscariot took note of it. In still another way, it is a recognition of Who Jesus was: not a guru or a teacher of righteousness, but God Whom she would serve and under Whom she would place herself. At an earlier visit to the home in Bethany, Mary sat at our Lord’s feet; now she is placing herself beneath His feet. Jesus came to serve, not to be served; but Mary is making herself the servant of the Servant. So, in this way, this is an act of humility, of charity, and of gratitude.
There is still one further meaning which is given by our Lord in the reading: it is for the day of His burial. Knowing that His time was short, Jesus was signaling to people that He would be buried very soon, but also that no anointing would be done. This was the only anointing of His Body that would be done.
More than this, we have to consider our Lord’s disposition in this story. He actually allows this woman to come behind Him (the people at table would be reclining on the floor, so His feet would have been stretched out behind Him) and carry out this gesture that was not only expensive, but somewhat shocking. It is not unusual for people, when they have a conversion, to make some major changes in their lives. Sometimes it will involve getting rid of some very expensive things they had been part of a sinful past. Sometimes it may even involve trying to express to our Lord the truth of their conversion. Based on what they had been involved in, this can take some strange, and even shocking, forms. Only those who had been deep into such a lifestyle would really understand the gesture, but for the person, it is sometimes a very important sign of being done with what they had been doing, and turning their life over to God in a new beginning.
The kindness and gentleness of our Lord in this case is amazing. We know from St. Luke’s account that the man who gave the dinner was aghast; in St. John’s account Judas acted scandalized. Perhaps others were questioning things within themselves as well. But our Lord, in fulfillment of the prophecy which we read in the first reading, the first of the “Suffering Servant Songs” from Isaiah, was “not crying out, not shouting,” nor did He break the bruised reed or quench the smoldering wick. He knew the heart of this woman and, because she was performing an act of true penitence and charity, Jesus allowed her to complete what she was doing and even defended her.
This can give us great hope and consolation knowing that our Lord is so gentle and kind. We know that when we bring our sins to Him, He will not cry out or shout, not will He break the bruised reed or quench our smoldering wick. He will receive our confession and, if we think it necessary, even our gestures that prove our intention to change our lives. He came so we could be reconciled to God. If we find ourselves in darkness or in some self-created dungeon, to use the image in the first reading, He gives us the way out of the darkness and brings us into the light.
It must have been frightening for Mary to do what she did, not knowing if she could be rejected or rebuffed. It was also a point of humility, almost a public confession, to do this in front of all those people. Imagine the freedom she found in being loved, accepted, and even defended. This is what our Lord will do for us as well. If there is something, anything, you have not confessed because of fear or embarrassment, learn from Mary and face down your fear, come to Jesus and make your confession. Not only will you find freedom of conscience, but you will find yourself accepted, loved, and defended.