Lent, Day 35 (Anointing at Bethany)

LOOK: Mary Magdalen by Eric Gill

Gill, Eric_Mary Magdalen
Eric Gill (British, 1882–1940), Mary Magdalen, 1926. Wood engraving on paper, 6.3 × 6.3 cm. Tate Gallery, London.

(Related post: https://artandtheology.org/2020/04/05/holy-monday-artful-devotion/)

LISTEN: Adagio in G minor for violin, strings, and organ | Attributed to Tomaso Albioni, 18th century, but possibly entirely by Albioni biographer Remo Giazotto, 1958 | Performed by the Budapest Franz Liszt Chamber Orchestra

Today is the second day of Holy Week, the final week of Jesus’s life. One event that takes place during this period, on Wednesday, is a woman’s anointing Jesus with oil. All four Gospel writers include the story, with variations (and Luke places it earlier in Jesus’s ministry). Love, hospitality, sacrifice, and honor are key themes. The woman is unnamed in the Synoptic Gospels, but John identifies her as Mary Magdalene. Praising her initiative, Jesus clarifies to those gathered that she anoints him in preparation for his burial (Matt. 26:12; Mark 14:8; John 12:7). It was a solemn act.

In addition, scholars have pointed out the deliberate allusions to the coronation ceremonies of Israel’s kings. Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, in In Memory of Her: A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins, writes,

Since the prophet in the Old Testament anointed the head of the Jewish king, the anointing of Jesus’ head must have been understood immediately as the prophetic recognition of Jesus, the Anointed, the Messiah, the Christ. According to the tradition it was a woman who named Jesus by and through her prophetic sign-action. It was politically a dangerous story. (xiv)

Richard A. Horsley says that when the woman anointed Jesus, she was “literally ‘messiah-ing’ or ‘christ-ing’ him” (Hearing the Whole Story: The Politics of Plot in Mark’s Gospel, 207).

Sometimes it was a priest who anointed the new king, so the act could be read as not only prophetic but also sacramental. That is, Mary serving here as prophet and priest.

Someone, I forget who, once noted that Jesus would have gone to the cross with this aromatic fragrance still on him. The smell would have lingered with his sweat and blood and was perhaps a comfort to him in his hours of deepest distress, reminding him of the loving devotion of one of his disciples. It was also a proclamation to all the actors and bystanders, as he moved up Golgotha’s hill and was crucified, that he is indeed the Anointed One of God.

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