To hold nothing in reserve

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Recently, my son and his wife presented twins to be baptized. After the sacrament, I nuzzled two sweet heads and inhaled deeply. And I pondered what it means to be a baptized woman in today’s church.

A smell can bring me back. Apricot-scented almond oil, and I can feel the soft roundness of a baby’s belly beneath my hands as I massage him after a bath and before sleep. Basil, olive oil and tomatoes, and I’m a little girl in my grandmother’s kitchen. Just the whiff of a fragrance, and memories flood my mind. But they are my memories and no one else has recorded them. In the biblical case of the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet with oil, the memory is shared, and each of the men who recorded it shares a slightly different story.

St. John describes Mary of Bethany, familiar friend of Jesus and the sister of Martha and Lazarus, who pours oil over Jesus’ feet and wipes them with her hair. His Gospel names Judas as the one who scolds Mary for wasting precious oil with such an extravagant gesture.

St. Mark and St. Matthew do not name the woman but they, too, say she is from Bethany. They write that she broke an alabaster jar of spikenard oil and anointed the head of Jesus at a dinner at the home of Simon just before Jesus’ passion. The disciples are appalled by the “waste” of the expensive, imported ointment, and lament that such an offering would have been better directed toward care of the poor.

Jesus had been trying to prepare the Twelve for his suffering and death for some time before this dinner, but they refused to truly listen. Instead, they protested, and they argued amongst themselves about who would be first in his kingdom. They steadfastly refused to consider the possibility that the kingdom to come would begin with the death of their Lord and teacher, not with the conquest of their enemies. Jesus patiently reminds them that he — and they — are preparing for an intense time of trial.

In ancient Israel, kings were anointed by priests or prophets, as Samuel anointed David. Further, oils were reserved to prepare a body for burial. Here at this dinner, we have a woman, instead of a priest, humbly kneeling and pouring out a rare, imported oil over the man who was to be hung between criminals. He will be buried and he will be king. Did the woman know she was preparing her savior for his passion? Did she know her king would come into his heavenly kingdom very soon? Did she sense that these were sacred moments before an unparalleled grief?

No matter which accounting we consider, the men in the room are scandalized. They are aghast at what they perceive as foolish behavior. It may have been her dowry or a precious family resource intended to be held in reserve for a loved one’s burial. So expensive was the content of this jar that it might have been the only thing she owned of value. She could have merely dipped her thumb and swiped his skin with a symbolic gesture. She could have been a lot more pragmatic and a lot less intuitive.

But the woman holds nothing in reserve. She empties the bottle onto him. She pours the entire jar of costly oil — worth a year’s wages — over Jesus. The oil mixes with her tears and is wiped with her hair — a complete and unconditional pouring out of herself for the Lord. As she lovingly ministers to him at his feet, we see her foreshadow Jesus tenderly washing the feet of his disciples, teaching them in his last hours to kneel in service to one another.

It is the woman who kneels first, serves first, understands first that to follow him requires total self-donation.

The women Jesus loved stayed with him along the way of the cross. They were the first to discover that he had risen. And they share in his ministry today. We welcome them into the church and, with baptism, we anoint them priests, prophets, and kings.

The scent of spikenard, like the scent of chrism, fades with time. But the witness of the woman who generously poured out the entire offering for her Lord? That is memorable. That is a teachable moment in time meant for the ages. That is the legacy she left us. 

Foss, whose website is takeupandread.org, is a freelance writer from Northern Virginia.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2018

@elizabethfoss