Imagine yourself for a moment witnessing this act of very public and extravagant affection of this woman toward Jesus just before his death. It is so surprising, even a little shocking, that I can’t help but wonder what really happened and just who this woman was, and what motivated her to do what she did.
Like the account of Jesus’ baptism by John in the Jordan, this story appears in all four gospels, a good sign that something like this really happened, though unlike the story of John and Jesus, the woman’s identity and motivation shifts a bit. In Mark and Matthew, where she anoints Jesus’ head, the story leaves her unnamed, and we know nothing about her. Luke turns her into a woman with a past, a sinner of some sort, and history assumes she was a prostitute, though without any evidence or justification from the story itself.
But here in John, we know exactly who the woman is: Mary of Bethany, sister to Martha and Lazarus, and a good friend of Jesus, so good in fact that when her brother, Lazarus, had died, she let Jesus have it, grilling him about where he had been when Lazarus was sick, and why he hadn’t shown up in time to heal his friend.
In this story, only a short chapter later, the resuscitated Lazarus is back at the family table. And so here again is Mary, this time without a word, covering Jesus’ feet with a shocking extravagance of immensely expensive perfume, and wiping his feet with her own hair. It’s a magnificent act of love and thanksgiving.
Imagine the looks on the faces of the rest of those men at the table, some of whom were offended, if Judas is any indication. Or were they jealous because no one had ever touched them with such care? They judge Mary, it seems, because she didn’t do the proper thing, the expected thing, the righteous thing: giving this extravagance to the poor.
But Mary knew that something else was needed, that this journey to Jerusalem was not going to end well for her friend. In six short days he was going to receive the very opposite treatment: in place of anointing, there will be beatings; in place of perfumed oil, the smell of blood; in place of the softest hair, the hardest of nails.
And so Mary did what only she could do: prepare Jesus’ body for burial, treating his body for a moment with the kindness that only she could offer her friend, Judas and all her other detractors be damned. Her act of kindness is a work of art, a response with her own body to the grace and salvation she had already experienced in Jesus, whose love and power had restored the body of her brother to life.
It is creativity so marvelous that we remember it still every time we tell this story, and I have to wonder if its effect on Jesus was so great, that he imitated Mary’s creativity on the night before he died. Was it Mary’s surprising and creative act of love and service that inspired Jesus to get down on his hands and knees to wash the feet of his friends? Perhaps we have Mary of Bethany to thank for the liturgy we will celebrate a week from Thursday as we wash each other’s feet.
For these weeks of Lent we have been reflecting on the questions of our baptismal covenant, questions that propose how we might respond to the saving work God has done for us in Jesus. We sometimes call them “vows” or “promises,” and today we will consider the one that calls us to care for creation, which for good reason might lead us to discuss climate change or environmental justice for people, such as those in Flint, who suffer the worst effects of pollution.
But seen through the surprising and creative way Mary of Bethany honors “creation” in her creative care of the created body of Jesus, perhaps we might see these questions of baptism less as vows or promises to act in some specific way, more as invitations to creativity like Mary’s. Perhaps they are encouragement to explore the ways we, with Mary, might practice the “art of salvation,” how each of us might take what God has so freely given us in Jesus and make it flesh and blood in our own bodies, as Mary did, in our own surprising and unrepeatable way. God may be inviting us all to get creative with our thanksgiving, to embody salvation in the way only we can do it.
We can’t be Mary of Bethany, of course—but we can be us: knitting a shawl that gathers prayers into soft embrace to shelter the body of one who is sick or grieving; sitting at the bedside of one we love as death carries them into what lies ahead; hauling beds and chairs and tables to transform a parish hall into a bedroom that for a moment feels like home for a family who lacks one; showing up at a community meeting that tries to address just why those families lack a home of their own; sharing one’s reflections on faith and life with friends on a Thursday night in the parish lounge; bearing a loaf of bread to make someone new feel welcome, or picking up bread and delivering it to a feeding ministry so that it won’t get wasted; singing a song of praise to carry the spirits of fellow Christians or anyone else heavenward; planting a scarlet runner bean seed to behold with wonder the power of life at work in God’s creation.
This is the art of salvation: our thanksgiving for what God has already done once for all in Jesus, embodied in countless new ways in us, until at last the mystery of the body of Christ comes to fullness. And if the surprising creativity of Mary of Bethany is any indication, we are still a long way from exhausting the artistic potential of what God is still revealing in those who follow Christ on the Way.