We sometimes think of our literary heroes as springing fully formed onto the landscape, miraculously endowed with talent and genius and grace. But they, like us, were on a journey and often relied on the help of others in the unfolding of their vocations. It was a surprise to me to discover that much of O’Connor’s thought on the nature of fiction and how to write it was in turn shaped by another, rather more obscure literary figure: Caroline Gordon.
In The Letters of Flannery O’Connor and Caroline Gordon, the editor Christine Flanagan gathers an admirable collection that traces the fascinating relationship between two women committed to both their Catholic faith and the craft of fiction. Yet unlike much of O’Connor’s correspondence with others, this one stands out as a kind of student-teacher relationship in which O’Connor, at least in the beginning, is the gifted student and Gordon the seasoned, exacting teacher.
Sometimes during the days leading up to and including Holy Week, I like to imagine what was happening on each day two-thousand years ago in the life of Jesus.
So what happened today, Saturday?
According to John’s Gospel, “six days before Passover” (12:1) and the day before Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem on the donkey (cf. 12:12-15), Jesus came to Bethany and had a dinner with his disciples, Martha, Mary, and Lazarus (whom he had very recently raised from the dead, as told in John 11). At this dinner, Mary “took a pound of costly ointment of pure nard and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair; and the house was filled with the fragrance of the ointment” (12:3).
It’s such a beautiful moment. Mark and Matthew also mention this episode, but seem to place it on Tuesday of Holy Week (more on the chronology here). They identify the dinner as taking place “at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper” (Mk 14:3, Mt 26:6) — perhaps the leper he cleansed earlier as recounted in all three Synoptic Gospels? — and neither Mark nor Matthew identify the woman’s name. Although, ironically, in both their Gospels, Jesus says, “Truly, I say to you, wherever this gospel is preached in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.”
Which it has.
A similar episode of anointing by an unnamed woman occurs in Luke 7:36-50, but not in the context of Holy Week. Rather, this anointing takes place much earlier in Jesus’ ministry, and it is quite different from the anointing in Mark, Matthew, and John. An unnamed “sinful” woman approaches Jesus in the house of a Pharisee and anoints his feet with her tears. When the Pharisee (also, interestingly, named Simon) objects, Jesus tells a parable about two men who owed money to a moneylender, who forgives them both. The one who was forgiven the greater debt loves the moneylender “more,” as Simon begrudgingly admits. Jesus says to him,
“Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. 45 You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet. 46 You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet. 47 Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—as her great love has shown. But whoever has been forgiven little loves little.”
48 Then Jesus said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.”
49 The other guests began to say among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?”
50 Jesus said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”
There’s a lot of controversy in biblical circles about how–or whether–these different accounts can be reconciled. Eleonore Stump, in her marvelous work on suffering Wandering in Darkness, suggests that perhaps the woman in both accounts is Mary of Bethany. Her first encounter with Jesus occurs in Luke’s story, where she hears about Jesus and, uninvited, boldly approaches him with tears of love and repentance. Her life is changed forever. She becomes a disciple, along with her sister Martha and brother Lazarus.
Lazarus later dies, and both sisters are devastated. Jesus arrives on the scene late. “If you had been here, my brother would not have died,” they both tell him. Mary, in particular, seems withdrawn in this story–she does not go out to meet Jesus, but only comes when Martha tells her quietly that the Master is asking for her (Jn 11:20, 28-29). Jesus weeps. And then he raises Lazarus after the man has been dead four days, prompting the amazement and adulation of the people and their willingness to sing “Hosannah” the next day on his entry to Jerusalem—and prompting also the Pharisees and religious leaders’ final determination to kill him.
It is in this context that the Saturday before Holy Week dawns, the day before his entry into Jerusalem (just two miles away). And Mary of Bethany at this dinner with Jesus and her brother, newly restored to her, anoints Jesus (once again). Eleonore Stump comments on this passage in a beautiful meditation you should slow down to read:
The wildness in Mary’s actions on the first occasion of her anointing him, in Simon’s house, is still there in this second anointing, after the raising of Lazarus; but it has a new form now. On this second occasion, Mary’s actions are not scandalous. Rather, they express her understanding of Jesus’ plan, her recognition of his love for her, and her love of him in return; and they are set in the context of her ongoing history of relationship with Jesus. Those who know her story, and that must be virtually all those present on this second occasion of anointing, will understand her action as a re-enactment of her first anointing. Her repeating of her original anointing is, therefore, a recommitment to Jesus, and in a deeper way. Mary picks this way of expressing her reaction to his raising of Lazarus because the as-it-were liturgy of the repetition gives weight to her act. The unrestrained abandon she showed in her original anointing had its loveliness, but it had an out-of-control character about it as well. In the second anointing, because she is choosing in quiet to recreate her earlier action, there is not only control but also power behind the unrestrained character of what she does. (366)
I love the solemnity and power that Professor Stump perceives in this second anointing, and her insight that Mary’s act is liturgical. And isn’t that what we do too, during Holy Week? Solemnly and lovingly re-enact those events so dear to the Church’s memory?
Some biblical scholars have also pointed out that this moment is the anointing of Jesus as Messiah (which, as you know, means “Anointed One”), a title he has often resisted to adopt openly up until the moment when the crowds hail him as son of David and king of Israel. His anointing as Messiah is the same as his anointing “for burial”, as Jesus says to Judas and the others to who object to Mary’s prophetic act.
It is hard to imagine [Mary] being double-minded or uncertain about [Jesus’] love of her after this. […] The surrender of love of her action has an authority about it, as we can recognize by considering how very different the reactions of the onlookers must be this time. The first time Mary anointed Jesus, the other guests must have been a bit afraid of her, wondering what else this crazy woman was likely to do. This time the onlookers will be a little in awe of her. The courage behind her action this time is not desperate; it has strength and discipline in it now. This time the story does not say that she wept when she anointed him. (Ibid)
How beautiful, and how fascinating and human. Mary of Bethany anoints Jesus a second time, just days before his death, in act of gratitude and love and dignity. How moved he must have been. She takes him, and everyone in the room, back to an occasion of profound vulnerability for her, in order to re-enact the most precious moment of her life, in celebration of the miraculous resurrection of her brother and in mysterious anticipation of Jesus’ own death and resurrection.
In this anointing, then, Mary manifests the glory Jesus planned for her, in both senses of glory. Her standing in her community is here the mirror image of what it was when she anointed his feet the first time. And there is now something luminous and great about her. She is very different now from the frightened but fierce, shamed and shameless person she was when she anointed Jesus the first time. Now she is both powerful and lovely. (Ibid)
I would like to think that in modestly attempting to re-enact or at least remember the specific events of these last days in the earthly life of Jesus, we can join Mary of Bethany in honoring him with trust and gratitude and awe.