|Poussin, Sacrament of Penance|
The gospels contain very similar stories about women anointing Jesus. Luke, for instance, records that earlier in the Galilean Ministry, a woman "who was a sinner" entered a dinner and washed Jesus' feet with her tears, dried them with her hair, and then anointed them with precious ointment (Luke 7:37–38). Then in the days leading up to Jesus’ death and resurrection, there are possibly two different stories of a woman anointing Jesus in Bethany. John records that at some point after the raising of Lazarus and before the Triumphal Entry, Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, anointed Jesus’ feet (John 12:1–3). Mark and Matthew, on the other hand, recount that a day or two before the Last Supper, an unnamed woman entered a dinner in the house of one Simon the Leper in Bethany and anointed Jesus’ head (Mark 14:3–9; Matthew 26:6–13).
Many scholars assume that these are two different versions of the same story, though the differences in detail and placement have led me in previous treatments of these stories to consider them as separate incidents (see God So Loved the World, 44, 133). In both these cases, the explicit reason given for a woman anointing Jesus was to prepare him for his burial (see Mark 14:8; Matthew 26:12; John 12:7). Implicitly, however, such an act of anointing may have symbolized something else. Earlier I have written:
Regardless of how many anointings there may actually have been, the fact that John on the one hand and Mark and Matthew on the other introduce them at different points in the story allows us, as readers, to consider two important aspects of Jesus’ role as “the anointed one.” In ancient Israel two figures were regularly anointed: the rightful king (1 Samuel 16: 13; 2 Samuel 2:4; 5:3) and the legitimate high priest (Exodus 40:13; Leviticus 6:20). The case of Elisha (1 Kings 19:16) and the suggestion of Psalm 105:15 indicates that prophets, too, could be anointed. Jesus has been functioning openly as a prophet throughout his ministry, which began with a symbolic anointing of the spirit at his baptism (see Luke 3:21–22; 4:18). But now as he prepared to enter Jerusalem for his final week, the important symbolism of an anointed king and an anointed priest came powerfully into play. (God So Loved the World, 133).
|BYU Jerusalem students in the garden of the Franciscan church at Bethany reading about the anointings of Jesus and reflecting on the faith and love of Mary and the unnamed woman|
Thus the story of the anointing in John serves as another fitting prelude to Holy Week. His placement of Mary’s anointing of Jesus before the Triumphal Entry allows us to see him as the rightful, anointing king, symbolism which continues throughout the first few days of the Savior’s final week as he uses that authority to cleanse the temple, answer and silence his opponents in the Temple, and prophesy of his glorious Second Coming, when he will return as king of all the Earth. On Wednesday of Holy Week, we will see how the anointing by the unnamed woman in Mark and Matthew can serve to signal Jesus’ transition to a more priestly role as he institutes the sacrament, suffers in the Garden of Gethsemane, and dies on the cross as a sacrifice for all.
|Churches and the mosque near the Tomb of Lazarus in modern Bethany|
Ideas for Celebrating Easter | A Working Chronology | The Raising of Lazarus | The Symbolism of Jesus as Anointed King and Priest: The Anointing in John
The Passion Week and the Resurrection
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