This is Part II in a short series reflecting on one of the stories leading up to Holy Week. Read the first part here to catch up on Mary’s absurd act of extravagant love.
No Shame in Mary’s Game
My second observation in the story of Mary anointing Jesus with some ridiculously expensive ointment is that Mary appeared remarkably unbothered by the potential risqué-ness of her action.
Here’s what I mean: John says that “she wiped Jesus’ feet with her hair.”
Women’s hair was a prime object of male lust in the ancient Mediterranean world. As such, it was customary for women to cover their hair, especially married women. Having it uncovered, or wearing it down, was often indicative of a prostitute, or a virgin who is yet to be married.
Not only that, but according to New Testament scholar Troy Martin, who specializes in using ancient medical texts to help illuminate the Scriptures, women’s hair was understood to be part of the reproductive process. In those days they believed that sperm was kept in the head of the man and the testicles acted as a weight to pull the sperm down. And then, for the woman, the hair acted like a straw that sucked the sperm up in to the body. (Thanks to my pal Richard Beck for this insight)
So a woman’s hair, if you will, was not only an object of male lust, but it was also categorically similar to the male testicles.
Adding another layer to the whole “keep your hair covered” thing.
So let’s keep that cultural insight in mind as we imagine the story of Mary here in John chapter 12.
She waits, all dinner long, for just the right moment. Knowing it would take courage, and hoping she could go through with it.
As she begins to make her move the scattered conversations around the room come to a halt. All eyes turn to her. She feels each pair.
Her mind races back to earlier in the week when she had purchased the perfume, spending a year’s wages on it. How long before she is able to save that kind of money again?
She presses on, determined to carry this through, but now questioning her decision to store it in this alabaster jar. Because once she broke it open and started, there would be no turning back. No storing some for later.
This was all-or-nothing.
The sound of the breaking jar reverberates in the quiet room. Kneeling next to Jesus she slowly begins to pour some on his head, ignoring the murmuring around her.
She moves to his feet. Pours some more.
And now she braces herself. Here comes the moment she was dreading most, and yet also most excited for.
She reaches up, grabs the scarf that was holding up her hair, and she pulls.
Unlocking her long brown curly locks she slowly begins to wipe her Lord’s feet with her own hair.
The rest of the guests, already indignant at the waste of money and annoyed by her interruption of their dinner, are now utterly shocked by what they are witnessing.
This move by Mary, only days before Jesus’ crucifixion, would have been scandalous in that culture. Beyond the perceived wastefulness of her action she would have known full well the risqueness of what she was doing. There’s no doubt that most people would see her action as sensual or sexual.
And yet Mary seemed unperturbed by it all. She went for it anyways. For her love and devotion compelled her to.
And Jesus called it good.
I think what strikes me most about this observation is how frustratingly interconnected and enmeshed we tend to get with “intimacy” and “sensuality.” In other words, I think it’s hard for us to hold these two expressions of love in separate spaces, even if it’s true that they often overlap and engage with one another. Yet the reality is, that though one may lead to the other, it doesn’t stand as true that intimacy IS or MUST BE a sensual act, and vie versa.
So while I see a deeply intimate expression of love and adoration in this act of Mary, even one that is risqué and potentially scandalous, it does not need to imply any degree of sensuality.
But the risk was there. Boy was it there.
I’m sure people were thinking it, whispering it to each other. Likely later, as the story was told and re-told, there were variations of it that blurred the lines more than others.
But to Jesus it was received as a beautiful and intimate act of love.
Intimacy and Sensuality
In Christian circles sometimes you can tangibly see this fear that intimacy must imply a path towards sensuality. This tension is on full display in what’s known as the “Side Hug.” The Side Hug was developed by the Christian Subculture to allow for people to embrace each other without the possibility of, you know, our frontal selves touching each other.
Don’t believe me on the existence and power of the Side Hug? Read it for yourself, here.
No boob connection. No pelvic area closeness. Keep all those scary things out of it, please!
I wonder if part of why some Christians fear intimacy is because we fear all things regarding sex and sensuality.
When is the last time you greeted someone with a Holy Kiss?
Sure, it might have been a cultural thing back then, but at some point the Christian community decided it was a practice that should be abandoned. And I think it’s related to our fear of “sexual indecency.”
But as a result we have lost the art of intimacy.
So much so that we created the Side Hug.
I guess why this matters to me is because I’m struck by the non-sexual, but incredibly intimate relationship that Jesus had with Mary of Bethany, and also arguably with Mary Magdalene. But in the Christian world we, again, driven by sexual fear between men and women, have gone to great lengths to keep men and women apart from each other.
And what has happened is that we have lost the art of having meaningful and intimate relationships with people of the opposite sex.
Kathy Escobar says this about the importance of cross-gender friendships:
sexualization & fear & power issues have really kept men and women from loving each other as friends. we perpetuate the divide by keeping men in men’s groups and women in women’s groups, by assuming that if we’re married, we can never have a close and authentic relationship with a member of the opposite sex, and through buying into the false idea that “men and women just can’t be friends.
Jesus’ call to love is a radical call. it’s not for the fainthearted. it’s not for those who want the easy road. it’s not for those who are satisfied with the status quo. love hurts. and love heals. we need to figure out ways to cross this great divide between men & women and learn to be true friends.
through these relationships, i believe so much can heal for both sexes. dignity can be restored, deep wounds can be healed, distorted images of God can be replaced with more balanced and whole ones. i truly believe we need mothers & fathers & sisters & brothers & daughters & sons and need to be those for other people as well.
I think this story of Mary, anointing Jesus’ feet in John 12, is beautiful on a number of levels. And one of those levels is that it points to, in my mind, the reality that the Son of Man modeled (in a society even MORE intentional about keeping men/women separate) the value of having deep, meaningful and intimate relationships with people of the opposite sex.
And though the risk was high, and it put Mary in a position where her dignity and reputation were now squarely placed in the hands of others, she did not care.
She loved her Lord.
And she knew something that most of the others there did not know, and that will take me to my final observation, which I’ll get to tomorrow.