by Cheryl Stewart Pero
director, The Rev. Dr. Albert "Pete" Pero, Jr., Multicultural Center
Grace to you and peace from God: Creator, Redeemer, Sanctifier. Let us bow our heads in prayer….
Scholars are in consensus that John’s “Book of Signs” ends at chapter 11, following the raising of Lazarus, and his “Book of Glory” begins at chapter 12. Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, seems to be a pivotal figure in John’s narrative transition from Jesus’ signs to Jesus’ glory. Today I want to reflect with you on John’s Mary: the transitional female figure who displays magnificent valor, a Palestinian woman in the patriarchal ancient near east.
This may be the same Mary that Luke mentions in 10:38, the Mary sitting at Jesus’ feet and listening to what Jesus was saying while her sister, Martha, is busy with many tasks. But, unlike Luke’s Mary, John characterizes her as one who is very extravagant and willing to take risks. Unlike the mostly unnamed women whose stories John tells in other parts of this gospel, he introduces Mary by name to his audience prior to the raising of Lazarus in 11.2, as the woman “who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair.” Quite an introduction, isn’t it? In this manner, John insures the attention of his audience for his narration of the story of Lazarus’ resurrection. Then John moves right back to his story about Mary.
In John 12.1, we find Jesus in the home of the siblings, Mary and Martha and Lazarus, who are hosting a dinner for Jesus in typical ancient near eastern fashion that honors and perhaps even proclaims to those gathered all that Jesus had done in order for the continuation of their family survival. For without Lazarus, Mary and Martha would become numbered among the most vulnerable in the society: women without a male relative to protect them and to provide for their wellbeing. And their family seems to have been quite comfortable economically. They owned property that had a family tomb and a house, not a tent, with many rooms. Most ANE houses had two rooms: one for gathering and the other for sleeping; but this family even had a dining room!
In our passage, the males, those who were witnesses to Lazarus’ resurrection from the dead and Lazarus himself, would have gathered in the dining salon, reclining on couches with their heads facing the dining table and their feet facing the perimeter of the room. The senses of those gathered in the dining room have been assaulted by hearing (and entering into) conversation about Lazarus’ resurrection because of the miraculous action of Jesus; by seeing Lazarus and Jesus at table together; by touching, tasting and smelling the food and the drink. The senses of all were fully engaged in the fellowship and camaraderie of the dinner until Mary, compelled and driven by an unidentified force, broke through their taken-for-granted gender boundaries. She did not ask for permission from any human present because a power beyond herself was driving her! Mary engages the sense of smell of those gathered when she breaks the alabaster container filled with pure nard and this gets their attention.
John tells us that, although invisible to the diners, Martha was serving dinner; then she disappears from John’s narrative as Mary enters the dining area, a male space. Her hair is down, unusual for a woman among men to whom she is not related; she brings a Roman pound (12 ounces/340 grams) of spikenard in an alabaster container. She, like Martha, is also initially invisible but John lets her presence become known quickly when she breaks the alabaster flask and the smell of spikenard perfumes the air. Spikenard (or nard) was produced from the roots of a rare plant that grew in the Himalaya Mountains in India. It was imported in Egyptian alabaster jars or boxes and extremely expensive, costing approximately a year’s salary, as John tells us in Judas Iscariot’s comment in v 5: “Why was this ointment not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?”
In this encounter, Mary then assumes the role of a slave and ministers to Jesus by anointing his feet and, according to Jesus himself (v 7b), his body in preparation for the day of his burial. Then she dries his feet with her hair. The scent of perfume now clings both to the room and to her. Why is this anointing by Mary so important? In biblical times, those who were anointed were kings, prophets, priests and the dead.People saved for many years in order to have the ointment for their own funerals! One explanation for Mary’s action (one with which I particularly resonate) is that John’s Jesus has not yet entered Jerusalem with the procession of palms. Mary’s action anoints Jesus as Messiah – a coronation in preparation for his kingly procession among the Jerusalem crowds in 12:12-15.
And, of course, it seems to me that whenever the divine emerges in the gospels, conflict normally follows. We are not disappointed here then when John tells us that Judas Iscariot tried to get “something” started as he accused Mary of being irresponsible with her own resources; as far as he was concerned she had wasted the nard’s net worth by anointing Jesus’ feet. But Jesus defends Mary’s actions before the conflict can escalate, and acknowledges Mary’s magnificent valor.
The phrase “magnificent valor” comes from a favorite movie of mine, The Man in the Iron Mask, a 1998 film starring Leonardo DiCaprio. The book was written as part of Alexandre Dumas’ (a black man writing in 19th century France!) popular 17th century musketeer adventure series. Towards the end of the movie, Aramis, Portos, Athos, and D’Artagnan, have broken into the dungeons of the Bastille in their old Musketeer uniforms to free Philippe, King Louis XIV’s kinder and gentler identical twin brother who has been incarcerated and in an iron mask all of his life. But King Louis discovered the plot and set a trap by filling the dungeon with his armed men. The four musketeers and Philippe find themselves unable to retreat. The bars behind them have been barricaded closed. They can only charge forward into what seems like certain death crying out their mantra: “One for all and all for one!” One of the leaders of the King’s men is so impressed by their courage and single-minded commitment, that he makes the observation: “Such magnificent valor!” The soldiers are frozen, stunned into immobility, by the charge of the five until King Louis fires a shot and, in their continued amazement, all the gunshots of the guards are way off, deflected from these five men. They survive the misfires of the King’s guard and, to their own surprise, remain standing even as the gun smoke clears. (You will need to see the movie for yourself to get the entire story!)
Magnificent valor might be understood as any exceptional, lavish, grand act of bravery that impresses the mind and/or spirit of others. In terms of the movie, magnificent valor is demonstrated in the focus and determination of the musketeers to act in a united fashion in spite of the personal danger they face. In John’s narration, magnificent valor is demonstrated in Mary’s determination to minister to Jesus in spite of the patriarchal forces that are working against her: in particular, Judas Iscariot. Over the course of the next ten days, Jesus’ magnificent valor, his strength of mind and will that enables him to encounter danger with the firmness of his faith and conviction, will lead him through his coronation in the streets of Jerusalem to rejection and humiliation from both the Jewish and Roman authorities, to the cross at Golgotha, and ultimately to resurrection.
There will be times during your ministry during which God will call you to demonstrate magnificent valor – I have had to on occasion, sometimes against my better “human” judgment. May God grant you the strength and fortitude to follow the model of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, in so doing. And May God add a blessing to us as we continue to reflect on today’s text and complete our Lenten journeys. Amen.