Monday of Holy Week: The Anointing at Bethany

SCRIPTURES & ART: It’s time to give St. Mary of Bethany her due

James Tissot (1836-1902), “The Perfume of the Magdalene”
James Tissot (1836-1902), “The Perfume of the Magdalene” (photo: Public Domain)

Foot-washing is an important Holy Week theme. Today the Gospel focuses on how Mary of Bethany anointed Jesus’ feet with precious nard. On Thursday, Jesus himself will wash the feet of his Apostles in a gesture of humility at the Last Supper.

On these early days of Holy Week, the Church selects Gospels that point to the events immediately leading to Jesus’ Passion and Death. Today’s Gospel belongs here for two reasons: chronologically (“six days before Passover, Jesus came to Bethany” — John 12:1) and causally (Judas’ reaction to this event seems to push him over the edge toward colluding with the chief priests and Temple authorities). 

In the Gospel, Jesus goes to Bethany — roughly two miles from Jerusalem — to dine with Mary, Martha and Lazarus. The Sunday Gospel eight days ago recounted Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. Lazarus is clearly the guest of honor. Martha, as usual, is serving (though this time not complaining). “Mary took a liter of costly perfumed oil made from genuine aromatic nard and anointed the feet of Jesus and dried them with her hair” (John 12:3), filling the house with its fragrance.

Nard is a fragrant plant oil (in its truest form, from honeysuckle) that grows in south and east Asia. It was, therefore, an import item that accounts for its being “costly.”

When we met Martha and Mary last summer, Martha complained that Mary had abandoned all the duties of hospitality to her while she sat at Jesus’ feet, listening to his Word. Rather than upbraid Mary, as Martha wanted, Jesus reminds Martha about priorities: Christ’s presence trumps everything. Martha was probably still a bit resentful, but open enough to what Jesus tells her to reconsider things.

That’s evident in the raising of their brothers. Martha initially criticizes Jesus — had you gotten here faster, Lazarus might not have died — but is still ready to hear Jesus’ Word. When he speaks of the “Resurrection” Martha seems inclined to write it off to some distant, inchoate future, but Jesus brings her right back to the priority of his Presence: “I AM the Resurrection” — and that truth restores life to Lazarus.

Likewise, today, while Martha serves Mary performs a grandiose gesture that can only be explained by the liberality love engenders. Instead of washing Jesus’ feet with mere water, she extravagantly offers what undoubtedly must have been the best they had for the best guest they had … the guest responsible for the restored life of her brother. 

And that ticks Judas off.

Like Martha once upon a time, Judas does not see the priority of Jesus’ presence. All he sees is waste. But unlike Martha, who will reconsider her opinions in the light of Christ, Judas doubles down on his views, undoubtedly convinced Jesus is certainly not worth it because, unlike Mary, he does not see him with love. All he sees is a money-making opportunity gone to waste.

Like many evil men, Judas does not want to disclose his venal motives, perhaps even to himself. So he complains that the nard could have been sold “for the poor.” John strips Judas of this self-justifying doggerel, noting he held the apostolic purse and readily helped himself to it. But Judas will like to keep up pretenses: in tomorrow’s Gospel, we’ll hear that while Jesus knows he is leaving the Last Supper to betray him, Judas departs on the illusion he might be doing something good like giving alms to the poor.

I related the Gospel in some detail because there is an unfortunate tendency to mix things up. John (12:1-11) clearly speaks of a dinner at the home of Lazarus in Bethany in which his sisters Martha and Mary take part, Mary perfuming Christ’s feet. Matthew (26:6-13), on the other hand, speaks of a dinner at the home of Simon the Leper in Bethany at which a nameless woman anoints Jesus’ head with nard oil, an action that elicits indignation from an unnamed “disciple.”

Mark (14:3-9) repeats most of the details of Matthew, except that multiple “disciples” complain to themselves. Luke (7:36-50) speaks of a dinner at the home of Simon the Pharisee, at an unspecified venue, with these variations: (1) the woman is identified as a “sinner” who (2) “learns” Jesus would be at that dinner and (3) weeps over Jesus, (4) combining her tears with “ointment.” Matthew, Mark and John all speak of their respective anointings as prefiguring Jesus’ burial; Luke does not but speaks rather of the pardon of the suppliant’s sins.

Large swaths of the events seem similar, but there are key differences that militate against us conflating these women. In the Gospels — including Luke’s (10:38-42) — Mary of Bethany is presented as Lazarus’ good, contemplative sister, not a public sinner. While only John mentions the raising of Lazarus, is it conceivable that as relevant a detail as raising one’s brother from the dead would have fallen on the cutting room floor for Luke? For John, the dinner is clearly chez Lazarus; for the Synoptics, it’s at a Simon’s — the Leper or the Pharisee? In Bethany (the former) or maybe not (the latter)? 

So, while a careful reading of the biblical texts suggests these are separate events and separate women the fact is that, over the centuries, the events got conflated (and the public sinner woman sometimes turned into red-headed Mary Magdalene). I make these observations because it complicates finding an artistic depiction of today’s Gospel that does not misrepresent it by including elements not in the Johannine text.

I’ll admit I can’t find a pure depiction of John’s Gospel regarding Mary of Bethany.

James Tissot, our late-19th-century French artist who detailed the Life of Christ in generally accurate Mideastern settings and costume, painted “Le Parfum de Madeleine” (The Perfume of the Magdalene) sometime between 1886-1894. In choosing this painting (in part because, in contrast to many Tissot works, it has a more colorful, less black-and-white palette), I have to spend more time explaining why it does not illustrate today’s Gospel but, rather, Luke’s.

For one, the woman is Mary Magdalene: her red hair gives that away. For another, the looks of contempt on the men alongside Jesus makes clear this is not Mary of Bethany at home among friends but the unnamed Lukan woman whom the Pharisees see as a “sinner.” The general disapproval is evident: the Pharisee on the left couch withdraws his legs lest this woman get any ideas. The tone of the scene gives the impression of sorrow, not of generous joy in anoint the beloved rabbi who has blessed our family. It’s unclear which person is Judas.

The Church honors Martha and Mary on the liturgical calendar on July 29. Pope Francis has now decreed the memorial as one of Martha, Mary and Lazarus. 

Any aspiring artists out there ready to give Mary of Bethany her due?