Sermon for Monday in Holy Week, April 10, 2006, delivered by the Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas at Grace Church, Amherst, Massachusetts.
In Remembrance of Her
I have been reading about the difference between “cold memory” and “hot memory.” (1) Cold memory reduces the past to a collection of facts, bits of more or less random information that have no particular meaning, no particular bearing on our lives. With cold memory, we look back at the curious things that people used to do, the curious things that people used to believe, and then we get back to what really interests us: what’s going on right now in the present. With hot memory, we experience a deep connection to the past. We experience ourselves as participating in a dynamic, unfolding process that flows from the past into the present. We feel our connection to a community whose stories and insights matter a great deal and have power to change our lives.
During Holy Week you and I are engaging in acts of hot memory. The stories we ponder this week are “hot” stories – stories that affect us as individuals and as a community, stories that are charged with divine energy and whose meanings we can never exhaust. These stories take us below the surface of things and into deeper currents of truth.
As Thomas Merton once put it, “If I were more fully attentive to the word of God I would be much less troubled and disturbed by the events of our time; not that I would be indifferent or passive, but I could gain strength of union with the deepest currents of history, the sacred currents, which run opposite to those on the surface a great deal of the time!”
Tonight – as we do every year on Monday of Holy Week – we remember the story of a woman who anointed Jesus. All four Gospels tell some version of this story, and in Mark’s Gospel, an unnamed woman comes to Jesus while he is having supper at Bethany in the house of a man with leprosy who is named Simon. She takes an alabaster jar of nard – an expensive, aromatic oil from a root native to India – and anoints Jesus by pouring it on his head. When some of the guests angrily object to the waste and extravagance of her gesture, Jesus rebukes them, saying “Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her” [Mark 14:9].
As you hold this story in your own hot memory, what meanings does it suggest to you? Some commentators point out that anointing the head of a dinner guest was a familiar gesture of hospitality in ancient times – maybe you remember the line from the 23rd Psalm, “thou anointest my head with oil” [Psalm 23:5]. But the woman’s gesture means much more than this – it has symbolic significance too, for in Old Testament times a prophet would anoint the head of the Jewish king [2 Kings 9:1-13, 1 Samuel 10:1]. Symbolically the woman is anointing Jesus as spiritual king, as Christ, as Messiah – a word that means, literally, “the anointed one.” Because it is a woman who performs this prophetic act, as feminist theologian Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza has pointed out, this is “a politically dangerous story.” (2) Once again, in the topsy-turvy world of the kingdom of God that springs into being around Jesus, the lowly, the despised, and those without social power – lepers, for instance, and women – are lifted up and drawn into the circle of God’s love, where they find their value, find their power, and find their voice.
So as I hold this story in memory tonight, this unnamed woman who has become a prophet and anointed Jesus as Messiah brings to mind all the women, named and unnamed, who followed Jesus, who listened to and learned from his words, and who welcomed him into their homes. She brings to mind all the women, named and unnamed, that Jesus healed, all the women that Jesus treated with dignity and respect, all the women who acted as apostles and who exercised significant leadership in the earliest Christian communities. Our patriarchal tradition often overlooks these women, and how poignant it is, how ironic, that in the very Gospel story in which Jesus declares that what this woman has done will be told the world over in memory of her, the Gospel writer has already forgotten her name. We can be grateful for the efforts of feminist historians who have worked so hard in recent decades to recover the lost history of women and, in the words of Schüssler Fiorenza, “not only to restore women’s stories to early Church history but also to reclaim Christian history as the history of women and men” (3).
As I hold this story in memory tonight, I also think of the power of one kind gesture. The world around Jesus that night was full of foreboding. We live, as Jesus did, in a world that often seems pervaded by anxiety, violence, and uncertainty – what playwright Samuel Beckett called “the dark vast.” The tension around Jesus was rising to a breaking point. The civil and religious authorities were looking for a way to arrest him. And yet, in a quiet room on a dark night in a house somewhere in Bethany, a woman was anointing his head with oil. I savor that gesture of kindness, and, in this often dark world of ours, I savor every gesture of kindness that we are empowered to express through the power of the crucified and risen Christ.
This woman’s act of devotion will be the last expression of tenderness that Jesus receives before Judas sneaks away to betray him. How precious that anointing in Bethany must have been to him. He could see how much the woman loved him, he could see that she recognized him as Messiah, and he could see that she knew that he was going to die: she was anointing the body that would not otherwise be anointed before burial. In one telling detail, the text says that the woman broke open the jar. This shows that she was generous in lavishing the jar’s entire contents on Jesus, but it also evokes the occasional practice, in Hellenistic times, of anointing a corpse and then breaking the oil flask and placing it in the coffin. Unlike the other disciples, this unnamed woman understood the way of the cross. Unlike the other two disciples who feature prominently in Mark’s story of the Passion – Judas, who betrayed Jesus, and Peter, who denied him – this unnamed woman understood the Gospel. She knew that Jesus was the Messiah and that “for the sake of the joy that was set before him” [Hebrews 12:2] – the joy of redeeming humanity and all creation, the joy of reuniting you and me with our loving Creator – he had to endure the cross. This unnamed woman represents all of us who have felt blessed and strengthened by Jesus’ presence and who long to offer back some expression of blessing in return.
Tonight, in the deep currents below the surface of the ordinary world, a woman is anointing Jesus. In the period of quiet that follows this homily, I invite you to gaze at this scene. Perhaps there is something that you too would like to say to Jesus tonight, something that you too would like to give him.
1) Jan Assman, quoted by John Polkinghorne, The God of Hope and The End of the World, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2002, p. 42.
2) Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza. In Memory of Her: A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins, NY: Crossroad, 1985, p. xiv.3) Ibid.