“She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial. 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 14:8-9

“When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb.” Mark 16:1-2

        With relative consistency in the four Gospel narratives, the story of Jesus’ passion and death is bracketed by parallel rituals of anointing. Jesus is anointed before his death by a woman commonly referred to as Mary of Bethany. We are told further, in Mark and Luke, that after he has died the women who provided for him during his earthly ministry have brought spices to anoint his body again after its death. The work of tending to a body does not end at the moment of its death. As modeled in the Gospel story, faithful care continues until the body has been properly blessed and symbolically sealed.

In the ancient world, where anointing was commonplace, the act of pouring oil over another person, often over the head, both conferred honor and signaled a transformation, an outpouring of power. The washing and anointing of someone near death or after death is simultaneously a way to honor the body and ceremonially signal that it has transitioned from one state into another. In Luke’s account of Mary anointing the Lord, Jesus himself interprets the anointing as a sign of “great love”. And as it is relayed in Marks account, what she has done in this anointing is so paramount that it is to be proclaimed alongside the good news itself throughout the world.

Markan scholar Ched Myers summarizes the significance in the following way:

“The woman, unlike the disciples, is not avoiding but rather anticipating Jesus’ preparation for death. This is why she is eulogized. Because she understands the gospel, it will hereafter be identified with her. Her care for Jesus’ body narratively prepares us for the emergence of this body as the new symbolic center of the community.” (Myers, Binding the Strong Man, p. 359)

        Indeed, this woman speaks to our context in a prophetic way. Finding ourselves presently immersed in a culture of widespread denial and avoidance of death, we are desperate for models of sacred anticipation of that which is inevitable, and holy: the deaths of our bodies. As an exemplar, Mary faces the coming death of her Lord with a ritual seriousness, armed with the power and love of ceremony. Mary alone exhibits an understanding of its necessary role in the ultimate transformation of all things. Further she points the way to the body as a symbolic center for Christian faith and ritual. She prepares the body beforehand for what it is to face, marking the body as the sacred site of spiritual reality, exhibiting a deep, sacramental materialism quite contrary to the cheap, commodity materialism of our present culture. In seeking to anoint the body of Jesus, the women in the Gospels practice a radical incarnational theology of love, one that sees the powerful and tender care of the body through to the end.


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Rituals of Anointing (By Intern Adella Barrett)

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