By Cynthia Kittredge
At stake in many of the debates in the church and culture is the question of whether a woman can represent humanity. That issue lies behind the question, “Is America ready for a Woman President?” It hovers over many of the discussions around the still-contested issue of women in the priesthood and the episcopate. While some read the Gospel of John as the most exclusive of the gospels, in its own terms, it is the most radically inclusive. In the Fourth Gospel women do represent humanity and model ideal discipleship. One prime example is the well-known scene of the Anointing at Bethany, what might be properly named, the “Second-to-Last-Supper.”
One can imagine the structure of the gospel of John as a series of feasts, beginning with the wedding and continuing with the picnic in the wilderness. Nearer the time of Jesus’ leave-taking two dinners take place, a dinner at Bethany and a dinner at Jerusalem. In the final episode of the gospel, after it has ended once, Jesus appears again for a breakfast of bread and fish with Peter and the disciples. This gospel pictures intimacy and friendship as feasting with Jesus. These ordinary meals are revelatory. To continue to explore the idea of leadership in John, I want to give particular attention to one of these dinners, the dinner at Bethany in John 12:1-8 and its important parallels with the washing of feet dinner in John 13:1-17. The two meals reflect one another, as though mirror images. Both are suppers; both involve the actions of washing and wiping, interpreted as acts of love and self sacrifice. At both are gathered those whom Jesus loves. At each, impending death impinges on the celebration. Judas, the villain, is present. It is at the home of Mary and Martha. Martha is said to serve. The host is Mary.
Now the memorable action of this dinner is the anointing of Jesus by Mary. Because there are so many variations of the story of Jesus being anointed by a woman in the gospels and the stories bear family resemblances to one another, it is easy to get the stories mixed up. If one hears these stories all at once, it is harder to distinguish the special role of Mary here in this scene in John’s gospel. She is the host, not the uninvited intruder as in some versions of the story (Luke 7:36-50). Like Mark 14:3-9, her act is a critical recognition of Jesus, but unlike that story, she has a name, and it’s a very important name in John’s community. The community of the beloved disciple, whose traditions are written by John, cared that the woman who recognized Jesus before his passion be remembered not only with a name, but with an important name, that she be remembered as one of the significant disciples among those who established the community: Mary, sister of Martha, sister of Lazarus, the family whom Jesus loved. The text links this story to the story of the raising of Mary and Martha’s brother in John 11:2:
Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. (John 11:1-2)
Mary has personified grief and love, in the episode before, when she weeps at her brother’s death and entreats, “Lord if you had been here my brother would not have died.” She weeps and Jesus weeps. The family partakes of this dinner in the wake of one grief and in the darkening shadow of another. Mary prepares to lose Jesus. She takes the perfume, anoints Jesus’ feet, wipes them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.
The Christians of the Fourth Gospel not only told what she did in memory of her, as directed in Mark’s version, but they incorporated her act into the liturgical memory of the community. The details, the supper, the serving, the wiping, Judas, all parallel the last supper, and show how this community interpreted the anointing by Mary. She anticipated and enacted what Jesus was to command a few nights later. Mary, as one whom Jesus loved, did what the friends were taught to do by Jesus. It is the second-to-last supper, and Mary plays the role of Jesus, kneeling, wiping, pouring out substance of inestimable value. Mary is the host, the one who knows what is to come, the one who anticipates Jesus’ example of foot-washing and symbolically washes him.
It is unfortunate that during the history of interpretation, this story has become so muddled with the woman from the city who was a sinner in Luke 7:36-50 and the busy and lazy sisters, Mary and Martha, in Luke 10:38-42. When read in its place in the gospel of John, the story eloquently proclaims Mary’s authority and leadership in the memory of this community.
The Rev. Dr. Cynthia Briggs Kittredge is Associate Professor of New Testament at the Episcopal Theological Seminary of the Southwest and author of Conversations with Scripture: The Gospel of John, Morehouse, 2007.