Repetition and remembering with Mary of Bethany

James Tissot (French, 1836-1902). The Ointment of the Magdalene (Le parfum de Madeleine), 1886-1894. Opaque watercolor over graphite on gray wove paper. (Source) *Some Christians over the centuries have identified the unnamed woman in the Gospels’ account as Mary Magdalene, and some have identified Mary Magdalene with Mary of Bethany.

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.”

Luke 7:36-50

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.

Stump continues,

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.

Happy Birthday, Flannery O’Connor!

ImageToday – March 25, The Feast of the Annunciation (and, fittingly, The Incarnation) – is Flannery O’Connor’s birthday. I just love her.

Here are a few reasons why (in her own words, because no other words will do):

1. “A story is a way to say something that can’t be said any other way, and it takes every word in the story to say what the meaning is.” 

2. “There is something in us, as storytellers and as listeners to stories, that demands the redemptive act, that demands that what falls at least be offered the chance to be restored. The reader of today looks for this motion, and rightly so, but what he has forgotten is the cost of it. His sense of evil is diluted or lacking altogether, and so he has forgotten the price of restoration. When he reads a novel, he wants either his sense tormented or his spirits raised. He wants to be transported, instantly, either to mock damnation or a mock innocence.”

3. “Anything that comes out of the South is going to be called grotesque by the northern reader, unless it is grotesque, in which case it is going to be called realistic.”

4. “Art never responds to the wish to make it democratic; it is not for everybody; it is only for those who are willing to undergo the effort needed to understand it.”

5. “I come from a family where the only emotion respectable to show is irritation. In some this tendency produces hives, in others literature, in me both.”

6. “There is no excuse for anyone to write fiction for public consumption unless he has been called to do so by the presence of a gift. It is the nature of fiction not to be good for much unless it is good in itself.”

and most of all, because:

7. “I think there is no suffering greater than what is caused by the doubts of those who want to believe. I know what torment this is, but I can only see it, in myself anyway, as the process by which faith is deepened. A faith that just accepts is a child’s faith and all right for children, but eventually you have to grow religiously as every other way, though some never do. […] What people don’t realize is how much religion costs. They think faith is a big electric blanket, when of course it is the cross. It is much harder to believe than not to believe. If you feel you can’t believe, you must at least do this: keep an open mind. Keep it open toward faith, keep wanting it, keep asking for it, and leave the rest to God.

Here are some audio recordings of her reading her short story “A Good Man is Hard to Find” and her essay “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction.”

http://www.mhpbooks.com/audio-flannery-oconnor-reads-a-good-man-is-hard-to-find/

Here is a wonderful article written about her by one of my favorite Catholic writers and bloggers, Amy Welborn:

http://catholiceducation.org/articles/arts/al0058.html

As she would say at the end of her letters to Maryat Lee:

Cheers,

Tarfunk

The “Dignity and Vocation of Women” in the Life of Saint Edith Stein, Part One

In this series of posts during Holy Week, I want to share how much I love St. Edith Stein– or St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. These posts are adopted from a paper I wrote my senior year at UD while taking an amazing class on the theology of spirituality with Father Roch Kereszty, O. Cist.

edithstein

The “Dignity and Vocation of Woman” in the Life of Saint Edith Stein

A great responsibility is being laid upon us by both sides. We are being obliged to consider the significance of woman and her existence as a problem. We cannot evade the question as to what we are and what we should be… We are trying to attain insight into the innermost recesses of our being… Our being, our becoming does not remain enclosed within its own confines; but rather in extending itself, fulfills itself. However, all of our being and becoming and acting in time is ordered from eternity, has a meaning for eternity, and only becomes clear to us insofar as we put it in light of eternity.”[1] Saint Edith Stein, “Spirituality of the Christian Woman.”

            For Saint Edith Stein, the question of woman’s spirituality is inseparable from questions about her very being, from what makes her unique. Stein suggests that it is through an act of “extending” or giving oneself that woman finds “fulfill[ment],” but that special action can only properly be understood in the context of “eternity,” or ultimate ends—that is, Stein the existentialist philosopher and Carmelite nun looks at the question of woman from a philosophical perspective, but also under the light of faith. Pope John Paul II, in his Apostolic Letter Mulieris Dignitatem, also considers the question of woman’s dignity and vocation with a similar twofold view. In this essay, I would like to explore the particular dimensions of Saint Edith Stein’s spirituality in light of John Paul II’s document in order to elucidate the special calling of women in the life of the Church.

The life of Edith Stein is a beautiful example of a woman searching for the truth and finding it at last in the cross. Born in a Jewish family on the Day of Atonement in 1891, Stein spent much of her young years as an atheist, but her natural intelligence and desire for the truth lead her to pursue psychology and eventually a new branch of philosophy, called phenomenology, which she studied under the guidance of Edmund Husserl. He taught that the world does not merely exist in our subjective perception, but rather that it has an objectivity that can be engaged by the subject. Stein’s engagement with this new philosophical context opened up the intellectual possibility for her that truth was absolute—that it could be searched for and discovered. But even if her mind was opened to the possibility of truth, her heart remained closed to it until she experienced truth concretely lived out in the suffering of a Christian. Husserl’s assistant, Adolf Reinach, who had converted to Protestantism, was killed at Flanders in 1917; when Stein visited his wife Anne Reinach, she encountered a woman whose faith was lived out in union with the Cross. As Stein said later, “This was my first encounter with the Cross and the divine power it imparts to those who bear it … it was the moment when my unbelief collapsed and Christ began to shine his light on me – Christ in the mystery of the Cross.”[2]

This encounter with the Cross of Christ profoundly shaped Saint Edith Stein’s spirituality and her view of the feminine vocation. In order to see this connection, we must emphasize two important points the concern her belief in the uniqueness of the female soul. (1) When discussing the differences between the souls of women and the souls of men, Stein emphasizes the special and intense unity between soul and body in woman:

With woman, the soul’s union with the body is naturally more intimately emphasized… Woman’s soul is present and lives more intensely in all parts of the body, and is inwardly affected by that which happens to the body; whereas, with men, the body as more pronouncedly the character of an instrument which serves them in their work and which is accompanied by a certain detachment.[1]

Stein identifies the strongest reason for this difference as originating in woman’s capacity for motherhood: “The task of assimilating in oneself a new creature in the maternal organism represents such an intimate unity of the physical and spiritual that one is well able to understand that this unity imposes itself on the entire nature of woman.”[2] For Stein, this unity between soul and body in woman is both a potential source of strength and weakness. She notes the danger that the soul will be controlled by the body instead of vice-versa. Nevertheless, “the strength of woman lies in the emotional life. This is in accord with her attitude toward personal being itself.”[3] This is because it is through emotions that a soul comes to understand itself and others, especially in the case of women. But just like in men, emotions “need the control of reason and the direction of the will.”[4]

(2) In addition to the unity between a woman’s body and soul, Stein also emphasizes the desire of woman to give herself in love. All women have

a longing to give love and to receive love, and in this respect a yearning to be raised above a narrow, day-to-day existence into a realm of higher being… The deepest feminine yearning is to achieve a loving union which, in its development, validates this maturation and simultaneously stimulates and furthers the desire for perfection in others… such yearning is an essential aspect of the eternal destiny of woman.[5]

This is a profoundly Christ-like desire, not only to love and to be loved, but to “further the desire for perfection in others.” For Stein, this loving desire that reaches out to others is present in the heart of every woman.

Part Two


[1] Stein, Edith. “Spirituality of the Christian Woman.” http://www.ewtn.com/library/THEOLOGY/SPIRWOM.HTM

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.