|"Alabaster Cup," by P. Raube, 2014|
It was two days before the Passover and the festival of Unleavened Bread. The chief priests and the scribes were looking for a way to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him; for they said, “Not during the festival, or there may be a riot among the people.”
While he was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, as he sat at the table, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment of nard, and she broke open the jar and poured the ointment on his head. But some were there who said to one another in anger, “Why was the ointment wasted in this way? For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii, and the money given to the poor.” And they scolded her. But Jesus said, “Let her alone; why do you trouble her? She has performed a good service for me. For you always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish; but you will not always have me. She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial. Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.”
Then Judas Iscariot, who was one of the twelve, went to the chief priests in order to betray him to them. When they heard it, they were greatly pleased, and promised to give him money. So he began to look for an opportunity to betray him.
~ Mark 14:1-11
The traditional (though, apparently, not really well-known) name for the Wednesday in Holy Week is Spy Wednesday. I know this because when I was in college one of my professors published a book of poetry called "Spy Wednesday's Kind." The title poem is cryptic in the extreme... I probably understand it less well today than I did when I was 18. But the professor, a lovely odd-duck of a Jesuit, explained it to me. Wednesday was the day when the religious leadership sought a way to arrest Jesus, and also when, later on, Judas presented himself as the solution to that problem.
In Mark's and Matthew's gospels, those two passages form the outer scenes of an "inclusio", i.e., a sandwich-shaped story. In this case, the parts about needing a betrayer/ finding a betrayer are the bread.
The 'filling' of the sandwich is the story of a woman anointing Jesus.
There is a story in each gospel about a woman anointing Jesus, but they are not all the same story. In the gospel of Luke, Jesus is in the home of a Pharisee, and the woman who anoints him is said to be a "sinner." She anoints and kisses his feet. The gospel of John gives us a name for the woman: Mary of Bethany, sister of Martha and Lazarus; the anointing takes place in their home. Mary also anoints Jesus' feet, in gratitude, it would seem, for his raising her brother from the dead. (Fun Fact: It is from the misguided conflation of these stories we get the idle tale that Mary Magdalene-- a different Mary altogether-- is a sinner.)
Matthew and Mark tell the story in much the same way. In both the anointing takes place at the home of Simon the leper. In both, the story is surrounded by the material about the search for and finding of a means to arrest Jesus.
In both the woman is unnamed.
In both the woman anoints Jesus' head.
I love all these stories.
I love how the women interrupt an all-male gathering to perform a startling action honoring Jesus.
I love how the nature of the action prohibits anyone from not noticing--spikenard ointment is highly aromatic/ fragrant, and the scent would have permeated the room.
I love how in each instance the woman is scolded for her wastefulness-- the ointment is too costly, couldn't we have helped the poor instead?
I love how Jesus responds by paraphrasing a well-known verse of scripture (well-known to the people in that room): 'Since there will never cease to [there will always] be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, “Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.”' I love that he doesn't in any way disparage or downplay the needs of the poor (as some would interpret it), but extends a both-and possibility: He can be anointed and the poor can be cared for. These are not mutually exclusive occurrences.
I love how Jesus names her action as prophetic: "She has anointed me beforehand for my burial."
I love how Jesus commends her to the memory of the community: "Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.”
We have failed at that last one. I don't much love that. It is reported that Elizabeth Shussler Fiorenza, when beginning her theological studies, came upon Mark's version of this story and was stunned that, in fact, this story has not been told in memory of this woman, and titled her seminal work of feminist theology accordingly: In Memory of Her.
In fact, I would suggest that the prophetic nature of this action by a woman made the early church so uncomfortable, other reasons for her action were substituted in Luke's and John's versions. She must have been a sinner. She must have been really grateful about her brother. Apparently, it was very difficult to live with this anonymous woman simply seeing Jesus clearly, and responding with a bold and intrepid gesture.
The unnamed woman saw Jesus clearly, on Wednesday, in the middle of Holy Week.
The unnamed woman performed a prophetic action, a bold and intrepid gesture: she poured incredibly expensive and fragrant oil on his head (like you might for a king or a prophet or a dead man).
Submitted for your approval: Changing the name of Wednesday in Holy Week to Prophetic Anointing Day.
It's not like the whole world will miss Spy Wednesday.