Just as Mary, Jesus’ mother, parallels the role of John the Baptist, so Mary of Bethany parallels the role of John the Beloved.
As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!” “Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”
— Luke 10:38–42
Most people are familiar with the story of Mary and Martha from the Gospel of Luke and it more or less explains itself. The polarity between Martha’s busy-ness and Mary’s attentive stillness are often used as analogies for the active life and the life of the contemplative. It’s easy to see the parallel between John (as we described him in the Intro course, listening attentively to the heart of Jesus) and Mary – both still, both silent, both listening. There are differences in emphasis of course, and they are worth exploring.
Both Mary and Martha are very significant figures in the Gospel stories. They’re the ones who ask Jesus to come and heal their brother Lazarus. They are both “myrrhbearers”, involved with the preparation and burial of Jesus.
Mary, in particular, figures in a significant story in the Gospel of John.
Six days before the Passover, Jesus arrived at Bethany, where Lazarus lived, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. Here a dinner was given in Jesus’ honor. Martha served, while Lazarus was among those reclining at the table with him. Then Mary took about a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.
But one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, who was later to betray him, objected, “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages.” He did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it.
“Leave her alone,” Jesus replied. “It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial. You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.”
— John 12:1–8
There are stories of Jesus being anointed by a woman in all four Gospels. In Matthew and Mark, the woman is unnamed and barely described. Luke has her as a “woman in that town who lived a sinful life…”. Only John has Mary of Bethany.
For many Christians in the West, until recently, this has led to all these women being bundled together and conflated with Mary Magdalene, winding up with the conclusion that Mary was a prostitute. This conflation gives our featured image, Le parfum de Madeleine by James Tissot, c1886 – which depicts the Magdalene anointing Jesus feet, a scene that appears nowhere in the Bible. But I like Tissot, so I’m using it.
So, just for the record, Mary of Bethany and Mary Magdalene are different people (the clue is in the rest of their names). While I’m not interested in shaming sex workers, there’s nothing to suggest either of them were prostitutes.
To return to the particular story – Mary uses nard, which is a medicine, a component of Temple incense and a burial perfume, to anoint the feet of Jesus. It seems like such an odd thing to do from where we stand. But just one chapter later, Jesus is washing his disciple’s feet, which gives us a clue to one aspect of this moment.
When visiting, it would have been common for a servant to wash the feet of guests to take the dust off so they could relax. If the guest was an honoured one, it would have been common to also then oil their feet. Both the foot-washing and Mary’s anointing invoke the image of the Household, which is one dimension of this moment. We are in the Household of God – the Temple unmoored from the physical building, but notice the social relations – Mary welcomes Jesus as an honoured guest by anointing his feet, then Jesus goes on to act as a servant towards all the disciples by washing everyone’s feet. The normal hierarchies are disrupted and overturned.
Jesus himself references his impending death and burial, so a second dimension is the preparation for the end of his life.
Nard along with myrrh is an element of Ketoret, the Temple incense. Raising incense is a central feature of Temple liturgy and of all Christian liturgy. So, a third dimension is a connection to the Temple.
It’s a rich image. Redolent with meaning. It takes Mary of Bethany beyond mirroring John in silent, attentive, contemplation and extends the connection toward the Temple, toward the Holy of Holies. Just as Mary Theotokos as the Throne does.
Those are some starting points, but I encourage you to contemplate the images and try some Lectio Divina on the texts and see how this might all open up for you.