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.

Holy Saturday




After great pain, a formal feeling comes –
The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs –
The stiff Heart questions ‘was it He, that bore,’
And ‘Yesterday, or Centuries before’?


The Feet, mechanical, go round –
A Wooden way
Of Ground, or Air, or Ought –
Regardless grown,
A Quartz contentment, like a stone –


This is the Hour of Lead –
Remembered, if outlived,
As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow –
First – Chill – then Stupor – then the letting go –
– Emily Dickinson

Will the Real Pope Francis Please Stand Up?

*This is probably going to be a longer post than usual, partially because I need to quote a lot of people in it. But I’d really appreciate your thoughts if you can spare them.*


Hopefully you read this already – Pope Francis’ interview in America Magazine.

If you haven’t, then go do it now. Pray before you read it and then pray after you read it.

If you have been reading media soundbites from “the left” or “the right” on what the pope said and what he must have meant, but you haven’t read the actual interview in its entirety, then drop everything and go read it.

Okay? Okay.

Both the Catholic and the non-Catholic blogospheres are erupting over this interview (and other things Pope Francis has said and done). People from all sides love him, and people from all sides are starting to really really dislike him, too.

Which, for me, generally speaking, is always a good sign. As Chesterton says:

And then in a quiet hour a strange thought struck me like a still thunderbolt. There had suddenly come into my mind another explanation. Suppose we heard an unknown man spoken of by many men. Suppose we were puzzled to hear that some men said he was too tall and some too short; some objected to his fatness, some lamented his leanness; some thought him too dark, and some too fair. One explanation (as has been already admitted) would be that he might be an odd shape. But there is another explanation. He might be the right shape. (G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy)

I really do understand the general discomfort, though. Mostly because I am feeling the discomfort myself. To be honest, I personally prefer Pope Benedict’s reserve and style. But my personal preferences have nothing to do with it.

Just glancing at the Huffington Post’s article on Pope Francis excommunicating an Australian priest who had started his own church, advocated for same-sex relationships and women priests (I mean… what did you expect the pope would do? This man had already excommunicated himself) will tell you a LOT about how a lot of people are being duped (as usual) by the media. Looking the plethora of horribly misinformed comments, I can  sympathize with Father Dwight Longenecker’s concern (although not with his rather strange use of the term “homosexualists”):

Rod Dreher in the NY Times suggests that the effect of Pope Francis’ America interview is that American Catholics (and the rest of the liberal gang) now assume that Catholic bishops need to simply shut up about abortion, same sex marriage and contraception because the Pope has told them to. Read the article here.

I fear he is correct. I’ve already read articles by homosexualists Catholics who have said (in effect) “I’m so glad Pope Francis has finally said that he accepts me as I am.” Which means “he condones my lifestyle.”

Yes, yes I know that’s not what the Pope said, but that is how it is being misinterpreted.

I can even sympathize a little with SOME of the things George Neumayr says in his troubling assessment, “When Paul Corrected Peter” … although, as I will explain below, I believe he is fundamentally mistaken about his main argument:

Some future Edward Gibbon should devote a chapter or two to this grimly comic episode: a Jesuit pope chatting about the appeal of diluted orthodoxy and “pastoral” effectiveness with the least pastorally effective and most heterodox order in the Church. We can’t “obsess” over abortion, contraception, and gay marriage “all the time,” he said, telling his fellow Jesuits exactly what they wanted to hear. They don’t even talk about those issues some ofthe time. (Neumayr)

But this is what Pope Francis actually said about his own order, the Jesuits:

The Society must always have before itself the Deus semper maior, the always-greater God, and the pursuit of the ever greater glory of God, the church as true bride of Christ our Lord, Christ the king who conquers us and to whom we offer our whole person and all our hard work, even if we are clay pots, inadequate. This tension takes us out of ourselves continuously. The tool that makes the Society of Jesus not centered in itself, really strong, is, then, the account of conscience, which is at the same time paternal and fraternal, because it helps the Society to fulfill its mission better. (“A Big Heart Open to God,” America Magazine)

And also:

So now, more than ever, the Society of Jesus must be contemplative in action, must live a profound closeness to the whole church as both the ‘people of God’ and ‘holy mother the hierarchical church.’ This requires much humility, sacrifice and courage, especially when you are misunderstood or you are the subject of misunderstandings and slanders, but that is the most fruitful attitude. (Ibid, my emphasis)

Maybe certain Jesuits (and others) choose to hear only what they want to hear from the pope’s words. But so did the Pharisees and many others in Jesus’ time when He was preaching. “Those who have hears to hear, let them hear” (Mark 4:9, Matthew 11:15, Revelation 3:22).

As for the big controversy over the pope’s ‘minimizing’ the moral issues that have characterized much of the culture wars, pause for a moment and think. Pope Francis was actually saying that Jesus Christ is the most important part of the Christian message, and we cannot let other (albeit important) parts overshadow Him.

In his own words:

The church sometimes has locked itself up in small things, in small-minded rules. The most important thing is the first proclamation: Jesus Christ has saved you. And the ministers of the church must be ministers of mercy above all. The confessor, for example, is always in danger of being either too much of a rigorist or too lax. Neither is merciful, because neither of them really takes responsibility for the person. The rigorist washes his hands so that he leaves it to the commandment. The loose minister washes his hands by simply saying, ‘This is not a sin’ or something like that. In pastoral ministry we must accompany people, and we must heal their wounds. (Ibid)

During the return flight from Rio de Janeiro I said that if a homosexual person is of good will and is in search of God, I am no one to judge. By saying this, I said what the catechism says. (Ibid)

The dogmatic and moral teachings of the church are not all equivalent. The church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently. Proclamation in a missionary style focuses on the essentials, on the necessary things: this is also what fascinates and attracts more, what makes the heart burn, as it did for the disciples at Emmaus. We have to find a new balance; otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel. The proposal of the Gospel must be more simple, profound, radiant. It is from this proposition that the moral consequences then flow. (Ibid)

One point that is repeatedly being made by even orthodox Catholics is that the Pope needs to be more careful, that because the media (and others) are twisting his words, he needs to take that more into account when he speaks. Some Catholics, while they do not disagree with the content of the Pope’s message, are very unhappy about his tone. They are afraid the pope is (inadvertently) misleading people, and giving them the wrong idea about what the Church actually stands for. There is definitely some merit to this concern.


But I cannot help but think of John 6, where everybody LOVES Jesus because He just has multiplied the loaves and the fishes. Wow, what a great guy! We were hungry and he fed us! (Think of Pope Francis when he was first elected, and how even the media were impressed by his humility and his nearness to the poor).

But of course it does not last. Jesus shortly there afterward totally scandalizes everybody when He announces He is going to give them his flesh and blood to eat and drink. When people start being horrified (cannibalism?), and even when the majority of them misunderstand Him and walk away … He does not change his message. He does not say, “Oh… wait… I was just using this weird metaphor for believing in me. Come back. You misunderstood.” In fact, He makes His message more extreme and more emphatic:

Amen, amen, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you.54Whoever eats* my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day.55For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink.56Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him.57Just as the living Father sent me and I have life because of the Father, so also the one who feeds on me will have life because of me. (John 6: 53-57)


And — perhaps hitting more closely to home when we think of Christ’s Vicar on earth, Pope Francis — remember all those people who were scandalized that Jesus spent all his time with tax collectors and sinners? (cf. Matthew 9:1, Luke 5:30, Mark 2:16) I mean, sharing a meal with other people is a sign of intimacy, of solidarity, of closeness. Can’t you imagine the Pharisees saying, “But Jesus, really. Now all the other prostitutes and tax collectors are going to think that what they’re doing is okay! They’re going to think your new version of Judaism approves of betraying our people to Rome! They’re going to think that one should not be punished for adultery! You’re going to be misunderstood!”

And… they were right. He was misunderstood. All the time. At almost every turn, every interaction, Jesus is confronting people who misinterpret what He says or simply refuse to listen.

Think about His trial, and all the ridiculous and inconsistent testimonies they leveled at him. A blasphemer, a rebel, an insurrectionist, etc.

And, even more perplexingly, Jesus does not defend Himself at his trial. He does not say, “Wait, you guys, you’re totally misunderstanding me. In fact, you didn’t even quote me right. You quoted me out of context with that whole ‘destroy the Temple’ thing.”

Jesus did NOT say that. Instead:

The chief priests and the entire Sanhedrin kept trying to obtain testimony against Jesus in order to put him to death, but they found none.56Many gave false witness against him, but their testimony did not agree.5715 Some took the stand and testified falsely against him, alleging,58″We heard him say, ‘I will destroy this temple made with hands and within three days I will build another not made with hands.'”59Even so their testimony did not agree.60The high priest rose before the assembly and questioned Jesus, saying, “Have you no answer? What are these men testifying against you?”6116 But he was silent and answered nothing. (Mark 14:55-61)

Pilate asked Jesus, “Are you the king of the Jews?”

Jesus replied, “You have said it.”

Then the leading priests kept accusing him of many crimes, and Pilate asked him, “Aren’t you going to answer them? What about all these charges they are bringing against you?”But Jesus said nothing, much to Pilate’s surprise. (Mark 15:2-5)

Here’s my point:

I’m not saying Pope Francis is Jesus. I am not saying he is perfect.

But I am saying that all of the things people are saying ABOUT him are reminding me a lot of what people said about Our Lord. He’s too liberal, He’s too conservative, He says one thing and does another, He does one thing and says another, blah blah blah.

When, if you examine the Pope’s own words, you discover how much they are centered on Jesus Christ and not upon himself.

If you want to read a really amazing article that expresses what I’m trying to say, please read this amazing reflection by Dr. Gregory Popcak: Papa Francis, the Prodigal, and the “Good Son”.

A taste:

I have, as long as I can remember, had a strong appreciation for the office of the pope.


Which is why my reactions to Pope Francis have bothered me so much.  On the one hand, I find much to admire.  His simplicity.  His heart.  His genuine love for people.  His obvious love for Christ.  On the other hand, I have been genuinely put off–sometimes even angered–by a lot of things he has said that, frankly, have made my job harder.

In the last several weeks alone, I have had people challenge me in ways I haven’t encountered before.  It used to be that when I made some statement about the Church’s positions on marriage, love and sex, people would accept it.  They wouldn’t always like it, but they knew it was true.   They knew it was true, because even if they didn’t exactly get it, they knew what I was saying at least sounded like what they heard Pope JPII or Pope Benedict say.    But now, all of a sudden, I’m getting a kind-of push back I haven’t experienced before.  “Well, the POPE, said…”  Or,  ”That’s not what Pope FRANCISsaid the other day….”  As if I haven’t read the same interviews.  (from Faith on the Couch)

Now go read it.


Also I have another homework assignment for you. (Remember, I am a teacher… I can’t get away from it). Go read this wonderful (and far more eloquent) synopsis of the situation by Michael Gerson over at the Washington Post (of all places!)

Pope Francis the Troublemaker