Leave Her Alone
When I was a young girl I wanted to be a nun. More than that, I really wanted to be a saint. My role model was St. Therese of Lisieux. I would read her biography over and over again to make sure I could learn how to act like a saint. I loved going to church, but mostly I loved churches. Still do. Proof of it is that I’m standing here right now in front of you. Back when I was a young Catholic girl, I didn’t dream of being a priest because that wasn’t even within the realm of possibility, but I knew that whatever I did, my life would somehow be devoted to God. There weren’t many female role models to follow in the life of the church other than these impossibly ascetical or holy women, starting with Mary the mother of Jesus, who was in a league of her own! In the religious world that I knew back then, there were no real-life women who could be my role models.
But there was someone who had my back; someone who was an ally in my formative years, quietly supporting me in my decisive moments big and small. That person was my father. My dad was a quiet man; he was never too involved in my day-to-day activities, but he was there for me when it counted: he mainly let me be myself, he talked to me about philosophy, politics, history, and he did so treating me as a worthy interlocutor. I always felt that he appreciated my mind and my opinions.
I’ve been thinking about my dad and about other men whom I have encountered in my life who have supported me, and I hope that other women also think of those men in their lives… men who are willing to let women shine without jealousy or possessiveness, men who truly appreciate women as fellow human beings. After all, I can be here today because on July 29, 1974, three Episcopal bishops, claiming that “obedience to the Spirit” justified their action, ordained eleven women deacons to the priesthood.
It has become common practice to bash men, to blame them for most of the ills of the world, especially if they are white and if they are in positions of power. It’s easy to do; there is definitely a lot of blame to pass around. I could focus on the men who still use their power to keep women and others in positions of subordination and subjugation. But not today. Today I want to give a shoutout to all those men out there who’ve made it possible for women to leave the confines of their homes and venture into the world to play active roles in it and be able to reclaim their status as partners in this business of life; I’m thinking of men like Martin Ginsburg who supported Ruth Bader all his life. And there are many more like him.
For the world to be in balance, it needs men who support and value women as much as it needs women who support and value men; after all, we are in this together–both sexes–in the business of becoming fully mature human beings.
Now that I am helping my daughter raise two boys, it is my hope that they will become men who are allies of the women in their lives.
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So with this backdrop, let us revisit today’s gospel story.
Mary comes in with her pound of expensive perfume made of pure nard and proceeds to anoint Jesus’ feet and wipe them with her hair. Judas Iscariot is disgusted with what he perceives as a frivolous excess and claims this perfume could have been put to better use by helping the poor. Without missing a beat, Jesus jumps to Mary’s defense and tells Judas to “Leave her alone!”
This is not the first time that Jesus came out in Mary’s defense. I’m of course referring to the episode where Martha complains to Jesus that Mary wasn’t helping her in the kitchen, and Jesus replies that Mary had chosen the better thing, which was to listen to his teachings. This event to me makes the case for Mary being one of Jesus disciples, one of the ones who sat at the feet of the teacher, hanging on his every word.
I want to delve deeper into Mary’s story, especially because in the liturgical year and in the Bible, as a whole, there are so few opportunities to explore women stories.
In the Jewish tradition, rabbis have used Midrash, a form of biblical exegesis, to unpack difficult texts. In more recent times, women rabbis and scholars have used Midrash to fill in the gaps in those texts and thus bring to light the lives of marginalized characters, especially women, in biblical narratives; they call it Womanist Midrash.
This is exactly what some Christian women scholars have done to vindicate one woman who was vilified and wrongly mischaracterized by the Church. I’m talking about a woman named Mary.
It all started in the early Middle Ages when pope Gregory I, conflated Mary of Bethany and Mary Magdalene into one single person–a woman who followed Jesus, was healed by him, supported his movement, was a disciple, was present with other women at the crucifixion and the burial of Jesus and even was the first one to see him as the risen Lord. This all made so much sense. This pope was onto something. This conflated Mary sounds like she would be a fantastic role model for women in the Church. Am I right? Well, not so fast. According to Gregory, there was a big problem with this otherwise wonderful Mary–she was a sinner, which for some odd reason, without any evidence to support such claim, meant that she was a prostitute. So there went Mary as a future role model for Christian women and girls throughout the ages!
The fact that this assertion was made by one of the most influential figures in the Medieval Church made it official: Mary of Bethany and Mary Magdalene were the same person, which was fine, but she was viewed as a prostitute and a temptress. That sealed her fate as someone unworthy to be an example of Christian life. Worst of all, it left us women without a woman disciple to learn from. In 1969, the Catholic Church removed the identification of Mary Magdalene and Mary of Bethany as a sinful woman from the Roman Calendar, but this was too little, too late. The damage had already been done for many centuries, and for many people this composite of a woman continues to be synonymous with sinfulness and penance, and not discipleship, love, loyalty, and courage.
Some attempts at vindicating this Mary haven’t really helped; books like the DaVinci Code and the Last Temptation of Christ have focused on Mary and Jesus as romantic and sexual partners, but they completely omit Mary’s role as a bearer of Jesus’ teachings—as a disciple, an apostle, and a teacher in her own right.
Many Christian scholars, mostly women, like Cynthia Bourgeault, Karen L. King, Elaine Pagels and others have devoted years researching ancient texts to clarify Mary’s role. They have shed light on Mary’s contributions and have vindicated her for us. Professor King translated the Gospel of Mary of Magdala, one of the gnostic gospels written in the 2nd century and which were found in the early to mid-twentieth century. Here’s what she says,
“It is no accident that the Savior loved her more than the others; that love and esteem is based on his sure knowledge of her. More than any other disciple, she has comprehended the Savior’s teaching and is capable of teaching and preaching the gospel to others.”
Cynthia Bourgeault, for her part, thinks that Mary Magdalene and Mary of Bethany are indeed the same woman. She contends that Magdala is not the name of her hometown, but a name given to her by Jesus. Magdala means Tower in Aramaic, so it is reasonable that Jesus would name her his Tower, just as he called Simon Peter, the Rock. I agree with Cynthia’s interpretation.
It makes sense to me that this Mary of Bethany whom we just saw in action is the same Mary, the Tower, who then followed Jesus to Jerusalem, to the cross, to his burial, and was also there on Easter Sunday. It makes sense to me that she was the first one to see the risen Jesus and to be commissioned by him to go and bring the good news to the rest of the disciples. This is the reason why in the Orthodox Church she is the Apostle to the Apostles. This woman had the courage to sit at Jesus’ feet even if that’s not what the norms of society dictated; she’s the one who came to anoint Jesus for his burial because she was the one person who understood the gravity of the situation. She knew that Jesus would soon be executed, and life as they knew it would cease to exist. But she knew in her heart that she would never abandon him or his teachings, no matter what.
To continue with this exercise in womanist Midrash, let me now read a small excerpt from the end of the Gospel of Mary, as translated by Professor King. Mary has been teaching in front of a group of disciples about a vision where Jesus had shared some teachings with her. She sits quietly waiting for their reaction:
“Andrew responded, addressing the brothers and sisters, ‘Say what you will about the things she has said, but I do not believe that the Savior said these things, for indeed these teachings are strange ideas.’ Peter responded bringing up similar concerns. He questioned them about the Savior: ‘Did he, then, speak with a woman in private without our knowing about it? Are we to turn around and listen to her? Did he choose her over us?’
“Then Mary wept and said to Peter, ‘Peter, my brother, what are you imagining? Do you think that I have thought up these things by myself in my heart or that I am telling lies about the Savior?’
“Levi answered speaking to Peter, ‘Peter, you have always been a wrathful person. Now I see you contending against the woman as though you’re her adversary. If the Savior considered her to be worthy, who are you to disregard her? For he knew her completely and loved her steadfastly. Rather we should be ashamed and, once we have clothed ourselves with the perfect Human, we should do what we were commanded…announce the good news, not laying down any other rule or law that differs from what the Savior said.’”
I find it remarkable that here Levi, like Jesus before him, came out in Mary’s defense.
So, Mary of Bethany, of Magdala, Mary the Tower, Mary, teacher and disciple–in all likelihood the Beloved Disciple–the one who really got Jesus, who really GOT IT was maligned for centuries and had her life erased from the life of the Church.
She may have had many detractors and naysayers but many have defended her too—both women and men who have seen her for who she really was: Jesus, Levi, and the many scholars who have vindicated her name.
One of these defenders –not surprisingly to me– was a mystic, the anonymous author of the Cloud of Unknowing one of the best guides on contemplative prayer. He lived in the 14th century, and yet he seems to have truly understood the depth of love between Mary and Jesus. He writes,
“Sweet was the love between our Lord and Mary… Whoever would know thoroughly all that took place between them, not as a gossiper would tell it but as the story of the gospel bears witness […] he would find that she was so completely desirous of loving him that nothing less than he could comfort her… And if a man should desire to see written the wonderful and special love that he bore to her… he would find that our Lord would not permit any man or woman—yes, not even her own sister—to speak a word against her… This was great love. This was surpassing love.”
This surpassing love is evident in today’s gospel. Mary wanted to be close to her teacher, her beloved, her soulmate. She comes to him bearing expensive perfume to anoint him. This would be her last public act with him, an act which made patently clear that they had an intimate bond, that they bore for each other the deepest love. In the tradition of the rabbinical Midrash it is considered that “the fragrance of a good perfume spreads from room to room, and so does a good name spread from one end to the world to another. John tells us that the fragrance of the perfume filled the house; however, Mary’s good name and her actions did not fare as well in the world…
Jesus knew exactly what Mary was doing and wanted her to do it. They were on the same page. She was well aware that she was going to lose him. I can well imagine the depth of her sorrow.
Being mature in our faith means living in service of reality; facing the facts no matter how harsh they may be. Jesus’ rebuke of Judas is poignant and maybe even a bit shocking: “You will always have the poor!” Of course, the poor, the marginalized are always with us; they always will be, and yes we have to help them. But first things first. First we have to attend to our most pressing needs and realities. And we have to start by showing mercy and compassion to our own. Many times we are guilty of focusing too much on the poor—all the nameless and faceless who need our help out there—while neglecting to be kind, compassionate and merciful to ourselves and to our loved ones.
Mourning is hard; losing a loved one is a tragedy. Dealing with our own loss and death is for the birds. We would much rather choose to focus on something else. The poor, those millions who need our help, are an ideal target. And I say yes, we must help anyway we can! But not to the exclusion of dealing with our own immediate concerns. As mature Christians, we need to remember that Lent is a time of mourning–mourning for Jesus and his suffering and for the devastating suffering and loss of Mary and the other disciples. But also, and most urgently, it is a time of mourning for our own suffering and loss; mourning for our own death. This will make us more fully human. When we live in awareness of our mortality we live more intensely, in the here and now, and we focus on what really matters.
Mary has come to anoint us with her perfume, to help us mourn for our losses, to remind us of the importance of seeing reality the way it is, not the way we want it to be; to help us focus on the the hard things that we so want to ignore.
Mary knew what she had to do, and she did it. Jesus knew that Mary was right, and he supported her.