Mary the Mortician

Image: “Anointing His Feet #2,” Wayne Forte, 2008.

She shows up in all four Gospels but only John gives her a name and a backstory. It’s six days before the Passover and Jesus is at a dinner at the house of Lazarus (the formerly dead guy whom Jesus raised). Lazarus is sitting right there at the table with Jesus while his sister Martha is busy welcoming guests and refilling wine glasses. 

That’s when Mary comes in. Silently, she kneels down at Jesus’ feet. She breaks open a jar of perfume, a pound of perfume, pure nard (whatever that is). With this perfume she anoints his feet, lavishing his flesh with the ointment using her own hair. 

The odor fills the whole house, and so does the shock. Judas erupts. “What a waste! That much perfume, worth that much money, wasted on Jesus’ dirty feet, in a confined space? Woman, what are you thinking? Are you mad?” 

“Leave her alone,” Jesus says. “She hasn’t wasted it, not really. She’s doing me a service. She has done this in preparation for my burial. She isn’t mad. She’s my mortician.”

As a pastor I’ve known a few morticians, people who prepare the dead for burial. There are no cadaver labs in seminary, so morticians and funeral directors have been my default guide to dead body protocol (though they never call it a body, they always make sure to use the person’s name).

We used to be more acquainted with death as a culture, but these days we usually whisk the dead away as soon as possible. Often, with the growing popularity of cremation, never to see their body again.

I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with cremation. I’m just saying that these days when a family chooses to hire a mortician, to spend time and money preparing a body for burial, it’s noteworthy. 

I’ve seen a few. 

An old man, consumed by cheap beer and hard times, dressed in his favorite football jersey with a tall boy tucked under his arm. 

A great grand-mother primped and prepared in a fresh-pressed blouse, bright red lipstick, and the slight hint of a smile. 

A child, dressed in his first and last three-piece suit, with his St. Christopher’s medal tucked in his fist like milk money. 

Rilievo nella cappella di San Vittore in ciel d’oro nella basilica di Sant’Ambrogio a Milano

Since the beginning, the church has been a people that bury our dead. The Romans took note, describing the early Christians as surprisingly concerned for the care of the dead. We didn’t burn their bodies on funeral pyres, or bury them at sea. We buried them in tombs, and catacombs, and in the ground under our churches, always with feet facing east toward the rising sun, laying them to rest in expectation. We do all of this because of Jesus.

Jesus had been avoiding big crowds ever since raising Lazarus because of the death threats. Word had gotten around that people were starting to believe inJesus, and in Roman occupied Jerusalem that word “believe,” was the same as the word for “allegiance.” He was upsetting the political establishment, which meant there was now a price on his head. 

Mary knew it. Jesus knew it too, but it wasn’t stopping him. They knew it wouldn’t be long now. Judas, so price-conscious today, will in six days accept 30 pieces of silver to betray Jesus to the authorities to be tried, beaten, and killed. 

The vultures are starting to circle for their pound of flesh. That’s when Mary reaches for her pound of perfume. 

Le repas chez Simon et la flagellation du Christ (détail), Musée municipal de Semur-en-Auxois

People assume that the goal of mortuary science (more of an art, really) is to make a person look like they did when they were still alive; but the Christian tradition of preparing bodies for burial is not a backwards-facing endeavor. In Christian burial, bodies are laid to rest as those who will one day be awakened. We bury our dead as those who will one day be raised by the Risen Son because we’ve seen it happen. 

Mary saw the first glimpses of it. She and Jesus stood wept together at her brother’s tomb. She got right in Jesus’ face and screamed at him “Jesus, if you had been here, he would not have died. Now it’s been so long there’s already a stench.” That’s when Jesus says “Take away the stone.” 

Then he raises Lazarus from death and announces “I am the Resurrection and the Life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, yet shall they live.” 

That’s why she anoints him today. She anoints him as the Messiah, but not just any messiah. She pours enough perfume on him to last the whole week, to outlive the smell of Death. That’s how much she pours on his feet, because, how did Isaiah put it? “How beautiful are the feet of the one who brings the gospel, who announces salvation.”

There will never need to be an Easter version of “Mary Did You Know?” She knew what she was doing. She was anointing his body for all the events of the week ahead, for his death, for his burial, yes, but also in the hope of the Resurrection. 

We read her story today so we too can prepare for what’s ahead, Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, the whole thing. Even now, as Mary prepares him, we are ourselves being prepared to bear witness to his death, burial, and resurrection, but we do so in the knowledge and light of the Resurrection.

By that light we see, even in the mortification of his flesh, the redemption of our bodies and the salvation of the world. We watch and we pray as in and through him the poor come to possess everything, sinners are reckoned righteous, the dead find hope, and we who are yet dying are given grace to live as those already raised.

Lamentation of Christ, Andrea Montegna, 15th century

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