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The House was Filled with the Fragrance of her Ointment


            The gospel According to John states that Jesus is the Logos incarnate, the Son who came from God and returned to God. His mission on earth was to give eternal life to those who believe in Him. The crucifixion, the lifting up or the glorification of the Son, is the object of faith that separates those who have eternal life from those who do not.

            Since this vision of salvation is based on the effectiveness of the incarnation, it is surprising that in this gospel there is no mention or recognition of the circumstances surrounding his birth from a woman. According to Mark also does not mention his birth, and seems to indicate that Jesus was adopted as the Son of God at his baptism. Throughout this gospel Jesus is presented as a man who has been commissioned by God to pay the ransom for the sins of human beings (Mk. 10: 45).

            According to Matthew andAccording to Luke, on their part, narrate the birth produced by the Holy Spirit and a young virgin (Mt. 1: 20; Lk. 1: 35). The baby born of Mary is divine because his father is the Holy Spirit. These gospels tell the story of his birth from quite different points of view, but both point out that Mary was impregnated by the Holy Spirit. Her child was not just another human being. It is surprising, therefore, that in these two gospels Mary does not play other significant roles during the ministry of Jesus.

            The three synoptic gospels say that on one occasion the disciples advised Jesus that his mother and brothers wished to talk with him, but the multitude was preventing them from getting close. On this occasion, when he had the opportunity to re-establish a connection with his family, Jesus ignored his closest relatives and declared that his family consists of those who do the will of God (Mk. 3: 31 – 34; Mt. 12: 46 – 50; Lk. 8: 19 – 21).

            In According to John, as already stated, nothing is said about Jesus’ birth. What counts is that the Logos became flesh. Reading this gospel we do not learn that his mother was called Mary. The Holy Spirit, who without a doubt plays a major role in the gospel, has nothing to do with his coming to the world. He descends on Jesus when John the Baptist identifies him. The incarnation here does not involve a virginal birth, but the mother of Jesus, who remains anonymous, plays a prominent role in the first sign performed by Jesus and in the sign that is the anti-type of all the signs, the crucifixion.

            In According to John the mother of Jesus is not an innocent and submissive young woman. At the wedding feast in Cana she is the one who is aware of what is taking place and alerts Jesus of the situation. The hosts have run out of wine and their feast is in danger of ending in a fiasco. Jesus’ sharp comment on the information his mother gave him must be understood in the context in which all the dialogues of Jesus are presented in this gospel. Whoever starts a conversation with Jesus receives sharp answers and ends somewhat out of balance or ignored. Be it Nicodemus, the Samaritan woman, Mary and Martha of Bethany, the Greeks, Peter, Nathaniel, Philip, or Jesus’ mother, they all need to take a second look and adopt a new perspective. This makes one suspect that the redactors of the gospel have used these interlocutors to develop their own agenda.

            Be that as it may, at the wedding feast in Cana Jesus’ mother and his brothers are at the celebration, and his mother is involved with the activities that promote the well being of those in attendance. While helping with the things that make friends, neighbors and relatives feel that the spirit of confraternity unites them and gives them joy, Jesus’ mother becomes aware there is no more wine and gives Jesus the news. What distinguishes her is that she does not take Jesus’ dismissive comment as a negative answer. She demonstrates her faith by telling the servants to fulfill faithfully whatever Jesus orders. She is confident that, given the situation, Jesus will act. She sees beyond Jesus’ sharp comment to his decisive and redeeming action. She is the only one at the very beginning of his ministry who has a glimmer that Jesus can provide the wine that the feast requires. Mary’s intervention foretells the purpose of Jesus’ presence among humans.

            Only in According to John do we learn that Jesus spent two days in Sychar and that, as a result of his stay there, many of the inhabitants of the city came to believe in him. This amazing success was made possible by the testimony of a woman. When she saw herself exposed, instead of taking offense, she thought that the one talking with her might be the prophet the Samaritans were waiting for. Her life, like that of all of us, had had its ups and downs, but at the crucial moment, when she faced the Son of God, she did what the occasion required. When her “hour” came, she acted decisively. Forgetting the purpose for which she had gone to the well where Jesus rested, she ran to announce that the prophet promised by Moses was a short distance away. In response, the people of the town came out to see the stranger, and they invited him to stay with them. When two days later Jesus departed, the townspeople said to the woman: “It is no longer because of your words that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is indeed the Savior of the world” (4: 42). Thus the testimony of the Samaritan woman was confirmed and expanded.

            The anecdote of the woman accused of adultery and about to be stoned by the Scribes and the Pharisees obviously circulated freely in the oral tradition of the early Christians. The oldest New Testament manuscripts do not contain this pericope at the beginning of chapter eight of According to John, but it does appear attached to the end of this gospel in several manuscripts. One manuscript has this story after 21: 38 in According to Luke. The position it occupies in our modern Bibles is the one found in late manuscripts, but it interrupts the virulent controversy going on between Jesus and “the Jews” in chapters 7 and 8. In any case, as part of the oral tradition, it undoubtedly preserves a dramatic life situation and an important lesson.

            The anecdote offers a radical criticism of the hypocrisy of a misogynist culture. Instead of identifying with the judges who impose the law, Jesus identifies himself with the ones who hear the voice of their conscience and recognize that it is stronger than that of the law. The law, no doubt, condemned her to death, but the “judges” who wished to apply the penalty imposed by the law lacked the moral authority to condemn her. Jesus, who undoubtedly had such authority, said to her: “Neither do I condemn you” (8: 11). The manipulation of the law by those with power is not the way God acts. While before God we are all culpable, not all of us are condemned. It is not surprising that the first Christians had circulated this anecdote widely, in which a woman culpable under the law is not condemned. They understood that the abuse of the law by human beings does not have the approbation of the one who came to reveal God’s love, especially when it has to do with the abuse of women.

            Neither is it a surprise that According to John presents Jesus as “the Resurrection and the Life” (11: 25) in dialogues he has with two women: Martha and Mary of Bethany. Even if to start with they reflect the perspective typical of those who do not know who Jesus is and where he comes from, they become guides to the believers. Martha is the one who confesses: “I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, he who is coming into the world” (11: 27). Mary is the one who pronounces the technical words which are the invitation which this gospel offers to all its readers: “Come and see” (11: 34). The invitation to “see” is repeated many times in the gospel. It is offered to human beings who need to see the I AM. In the case of Mary, however, with characteristic irony, the invitation is for the I AM to see a corpse shrouded in its sepulcher.

            It is somewhat confusing that at the beginning of this episode the narrator identifies Mary as the one “who anointed the Lord with ointment and wiped his feet with her hair” (11: 2). It is confusing because readers learn of the anointing in the next chapter. But just as Nicodemus is known as the one who came to Jesus by night (7: 50; 19: 39), Mary is the one who “took a pound of costly ointment of pure nard and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair” (12: 3). Judas, with the hypocrisy of the thief, calculates that the precious liquid was worth three hundred denarii and was being wasted. Jesus, however, interprets Mary’s action as the anointing of his body for burial. Actually, this is the real anointing of Jesus’ body. The language which describes the details of the anointing carried out by Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus tells us that what the gentleman of the night and the secret disciple did was a Jewish ritual concerned with the flesh because they did not understand that the Spirit is the one that gives life..

            In According to Mark and According to Matthew the anointing is performed by an anonymous woman who has an alabaster jar with a costly ointment of nard and pours it on Jesus’ head. To call attention to the action, Jesus prophesies: “Wherever the gospel is preached in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her” (Mk. 14: 9; Mt. 26: 13). No doubt these words underline the importance of what this woman had done. Her fame is going to be recognized in the whole world, wherever the gospel is preached. No such thing is ever said of one of the twelve disciples. I must confess, however, that the indirect, more poetic, way in which According to John underlines the action of Mary of Bethany impresses me more: “the house was filled with the fragrance of her ointment” (12: 3). The action of Mary did not just have an effect on Jesus. She gave the whole house a different atmosphere. Jesus does not mention here Mary’s future fame wherever the gospel is preached. Her generous identification with the one who was to die had an immediate effect on all those present. Symbolically Mary has carried out the burial of the one who died to bear much fruit (12: 24).

            Mary of Bethany is the one who invites Jesus saying “Come and see” a four-day-old dead body which already smells bad. She is also the one who anoints Jesus’ body to give closure to his death, thus taking Jesus to the door of the place where he must fulfill the purpose of his incarnation and giving Jesus’ death finality. Martha confesses to believe in the Resurrection and the Life, and Mary is the one who guides and completes the triumph of Jesus over death. These two women whom Jesus loved (11: 5) play a role more important than that of any other disciple in According to John.

            Mary of Magdala, a small village on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee between Tiberias and Capernaum, clearly is not Mary of Bethany, the one who anointed the feet of Jesus. Neither is she the one who guided Jesus to Lazarus’ tomb. She is the one who announces the resurrection to the disciples who had closeted themselves “for fear of the Jews” (20: 19). What the disciples least expected was to see Jesus again. The possibility of a resurrection had not crossed their minds (20:9). In this story, the empty tomb tells Mary of Magdala that someone has taken the corpse somewhere else. When later Mary realizes that the one speaking to her is not the gardener but Jesus, she runs to give the good news to the disciples: “I have seen the Lord” (20: 18).

            She who had first announced that the body had been stolen, now announces that she has seen and has received instructions from the Lord: “Go to my brethren and say to them, I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God” (20: 17). In According to John, she is the first to see the living Lord after his death on the cross.

            Among the first Christians there arose different lists of the first witnesses to the Risen Christ. In 1 Cor. 15: 5 – 8, Paul gives two lists. One places Peter first and then the twelve. The other places James first and then all the apostles. According to John places Mary of Magdala first and then the twelve. Apparently different Christian communities traced their origins to the disciple who headed their preferred list, and the Johannine community identifies Mary of Magdala as the one who gave it origin. She, together with Martha and Mary of Bethany, the Samaritan woman, the mother of Jesus and the beloved disciple, whose identity remains elusive, appear to have formed the nucleus of this community. This select group was the one which “remembered” the meaning of what the disciples had not understood while they traveled the dusty roads of Galilee, Samaria and Judea with Jesus.

            Hanging on the cross, Jesus recognizes his mother and the beloved disciple. Instead of negating his earthly family, Jesus constitutes a new family with his mother and the beloved disciple (19: 26 – 27). After the resurrection Jesus sends Mary of Magdala to tell “his brethren”, the new members of his family, that he is ascending to the Father. There is no doubt that in the Johannine community women enjoyed the prestige of being the ones “who understood all things” and testified to the others. They were the servants of the Parákletos. The gospel According to Mark says that while all the male disciples were absent during the crucifixion, the women witnessed everything that took place. Among them was Mary of Magdala, Mary the mother of James the less and Joseph, and Salome. They had been with Jesus in Galilee and had followed and served him. Also at Golgotha were other women who had come to Jerusalem with Jesus (Mk. 15: 40 – 41). This gospel also reports that Mary of Magdala and Mary the mother of Joses witnessed the entombment (Mk. 15: 47). According to John gives to the women a much more prominent place than that given by According to Mark. They are not only the faithful “followers” (the technical designation of disciples in According to Mark) and are not merely witnesses of the crucifixion and the burial. They are the ones who play the most important roles in the drama of Jesus’ mission and the ones who constitute the nucleus of a singularly important Christian community.


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