A sermon preached on Wednesday of Holy Week at St. Gregory's Episcopal Church, 4/12/17; selections from The Life of the Virgin; Matthew 26:6-13; John 12:1-8.
The first reading we just heard from Maximus the Confessor, from the 6th century, comes from his book The Life of the Virgin, in which he gathered early Church traditions about the Virgin Mary, but also traditions regarding the other women around Jesus, and we heard some of his lines recounting how the early Church remembered the disciple we know as Mary Magdalene. She was remembered as strong and brave and constant, outstripping even the male disciples in her passion for the Gospel. And Maximus does not hesitate to name her a disciple, minister, and apostle.
This sits well with her portrayal in the canonical Gospels—she is present throughout Jesus’ ministry and she’s remembered as being at the Cross when most of the other disciples fled, she’s remembered as being there to prepare Jesus’ body for burial, and she’s remembered as the first witness to the Resurrection, the Apostle to the Apostles. Nevertheless, our Holy Week liturgies have traditionally ignored her, focusing instead on Judas’ betrayal and Peter’s denial. And Holy Week has become a week to remember these possibilities within ourselves—that we betray and deny Christ.
But the Gospels hold up another possibility this week, one that we have too often forgotten: Mary Magdalene. The Gospel reading we just heard actually wove together lines from both John and Matthew’s accounts of the scene of the anointing at Bethany. In John’s words: “Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.”
While it is not explicit within our Gospel texts, tradition has often said that this Mary of Bethany (who remains unamed in Matthew’s Gospel) is the same woman that we know as Mary Magdalene. The seeming difference in naming has been explained by a practice we see Jesus engaging in throughout the Gospels: he gives several of the disciples what might be called an “initiatic name”: a name given by their spiritual teacher that calls out their central qualities. And so Simon becomes Peter, Cephas, “the Rock.” James and John, the sons of Zebedee, become Boanerges, “the Sons of Thunder.” James becomes “the Just.”
In this understanding, Magdalene doesn’t mean “from the town called Magdala” but is instead derived from the Hebrew word migdol which means “tower” or “fortress.” And so Jesus names Mary of Bethany “Mary Migdolene”—Mary the Strong Tower. If this is the case, the Mary who anoints Jesus is the same Mary who stands by at the Cross, at the tomb, and who witnesses the Resurrection. And so she is the one constant presence of love and faithful discipleship throughout the entirety of this final week of Jesus’ life.
And it is here at her hands, during this scene at Bethany, that Jesus becomes the Christ, the Anointed One. That is, of course, what the Greek word Christos and the Hebrew Mashiah—Messiah—means: the Anointed One. And this is the first time in the Gospel story that Jesus is actually anointed for his calling. It is here then, at the hands of Mary, that Jesus steps fully and finally into the identity and the destiny that he’s been carrying all along.
Here, at the hands of one of his women disciples, he is anointed as the Christ. But it’s also here, at her hands, that we’re reminded once again just what kind of Christ Jesus will be—not the hoped for king or military leader, but the suffering servant. If you remember, throughout the Gospels, whenever Jesus makes mention of his suffering and death that is to come, his male disciples protest. They don’t seem to get it—or they don’t want to get it.
And when they complain that the ointment Mary has used to anoint Jesus has been wasted, Jesus responds, “By pouring this ointment on my body she has prepared me for burial.” Here again, Jesus points us towards his suffering and death, towards the mysteries of Holy Week that we will all soon be journeying through. But he also is telling the boys, and telling us, that Mary gets it. She understands the kenotic path he is walking, this way of self-emptying love, she sees where it will inevitably lead, and she lovingly, tenderly, anoints him for it.
To begin here as we make our journey into the days ahead is to set out on a different note—not betrayal, not denial, but love. Love, presence, understanding, tenderness, courage. We remember that Jesus wasn’t left alone; that one stood by him at every point of the journey. And while we don’t deny those other possibilities within us—betrayal, denial, fear—tonight, we don’t start the journey on those notes. We begin with the one and only thing that is constant and that will see us through. We begin with love.
Shortly I will invite you all to come and gather around the altar, as we prepare each other with tenderness for what lies ahead. And as you come forward, bring with you the image of Mary the Strong Tower, anointing her beloved Jesus, anointing our beloved, for the journey that we all will be making together. The perfume of her ointment filling the room, the sweet sadness of her tears, as she prepares Jesus in heart and body for what lies ahead, establishing a bond of love that will never be dropped throughout these final days.
It’s become a recent tradition to pair with this anointing words from the Song of Songs (8:6-7), words written for a beloved, and I invite you to hear Mary singing these words to Jesus as she pours the oil over his head, and knowingly, lovingly, prepares him for the Cross:
Place me as a seal upon your heart,
For love is as strong as death,
its ardor as unyielding as the grave.
It burns like a blazing fire,
Like a mighty flame.
Many waters cannot quench love.
Rivers cannot wash it away.
May that same love tie us all to the heart of Christ as we prepare tonight to enter the heart of the Christian mysteries, and may that love carry each one of us through death and out the other side.