“When Jesus understood it, he said unto them, Why trouble ye the woman? for she hath wrought a good work upon me. For ye have the poor always with you; but me ye have not always. For in that she hath poured this ointment on my body, she did it for my burial. Verily I say unto you, Wheresoever this gospel shall be preached in the whole world, there shall also this, that this woman hath done, be told for a memorial of her.”
— S. Matthew xxvi, 10-13.
There never was a prophecy more strange than this. When our Lord predicts the destruction of Jerusalem, when His mind leaps across long ages of time to anticipate the Day of Judgment, He deals with big events and vast movements that come of necessity, as it seems to us, within the range of vision of the Son of God. We so revere the lofty Person of Christ that when, even at the foot of the Cross, His flashing eyes command a view of all after history, the rising and fall ing of nations and kingdoms, pestilence, war, earthquake, the final trumpet, and the rushing of ten thousand times ten thousand angels, we are not too greatly amazed.
But here He seems to labor in prophetic utterance concerning a mere trifle. He would seem to desire permanence for an evanescent perfume that floated through a banquet hall nearly two thousand years ago.
For, as He sits at the feast given in His honor at Bethany, a woman enters, having an alabaster cruse of precious ointment, and reverently anoints the head and feet of Jesus. The stingy ill-nature of Judas Iscariot stirs in some of the disciples, unused to such luxuries, a feeling of protest. Why waste this precious liquid in the gratification of a mere sentiment? If one would do good, why not something useful? Why not something permanent?
Even as they grumble, S. John tells us, the house is filled with the odor of the ointment. The guests are conscious of a subtle and delicious fragrance that steals upon the senses, and adds a languorous delight to the breath of life, compelling attention and awakening memories like a strain of ethereal mu sic. But, just when it most delights the nostrils, the odor begins to vanish. It be longs only to the moment, and is the very symbol of all that is transitory, as opposed to that which is permanent.
Then it is that Jesus makes His strangest prophecy. "No," He seems to say, "This is not transitory. The perfume of this hour is, in fact, its only permanent possession. This anointing with the alabaster cruse of ointment is a deed that shall live in history." "Verily I say unto you," declares the Christ, "wheresoever this Gospel shall be preached in the whole world, there shall also this, that this woman hath done, be told for a memorial of her."
If the prophecy is strange, its fulfillment is even more amazing, in literal fidelity to the promise. Wheresoever the Gospel is preached, the fragrance of this woman's deed in Bethany abides. Nearly two thousand years have wrought their changes in the world, but here today once more the strange prophecy is fulfilled, and the story is told again. And wherever the Gospel is preached of the wonderful things that Jesus did for humanity, there goes the record of this one loving service that humanity performed for Jesus.
The anointing of our Blessed Lord at Bethany, when one tries to measure its significance, is found to be bound up with one of the most difficult but most fascinating problems of New Testament interpretation. Each one of the four Gospels — S. Matthew, S. Mark, S. Luke, and S. John — contains an account of an anointing of our Lord, at a feast, by a woman. Three of the accounts are so much alike that they must be held to de scribe the same incident from the points of view of three different witnesses. But one of the accounts — that of S. Luke — is quite un like the others. While the incident described resembles the other, it is dissimilar in time, in circumstance, in purpose. It is the penitential act of a woman who has been a notorious sinner. The other anointing is the devout deed of a woman prominent in the Christian community. There were, therefore, two anointings of Jesus — the first by a penitent woman at a feast in Galilee, the other, two years later, at Bethany, by a woman who stood high in Christian discipleship.
Was there any relationship between the two women thus described? Did the second, who won the praise of Christ at Bethany, know that the other had so anointed Him, two years before, in Galilee? In the answer to these questions lies the chief significance of the story. The difficulty of answering these inquiries with absolute certainty arises out of a manifest effort on the part of the writers of the Gospels to shield the family at Bethany from too much publicity. It is natural that there should be great public interest in the house hold at Bethany, of Martha and Mary and Lazarus, where Jesus of Nazareth was an in timate friend, and where Lazarus had come back from the grave. But the reporters of the Gospel seem careful not to gratify the public curiosity. There seems to be some reason why the family at Bethany — Martha and Mary and Lazarus — desire to be screened from too much notoriety. And strangely enough, this sensitiveness to the public gaze appears to be connected not with Lazarus, as one might suspect, because of his journey back from death — not with him, but with Mary. One glimpse into the home of Martha and Mary S. Luke allows, and shows Mary sitting devoutly at the feet of Christ. But her public appearance at the feast, where she anoints the Lord with pre cious ointment, S. Luke passes over in silence. S. Matthew describes the incident of the anointing at Bethany, but does not give the name of Mary. S. Mark describes the same incident, but does not give the name of Mary. They describe her as just a woman, well knowing who she is — the famous Mary of Bethany — yet they do not give her name, although they record the promise of the Lord, conferring everlasting fame upon her deed. Yet they leave her nameless.
It is only from S. John, writing many years afterward, when some of the causes of silence had been removed, that we learn the name of her who anointed Jesus at Bethany, and whose deed of love He declared to be immortal — Mary of Bethany, the sister of Martha and Lazarus. It often happens in biographical writing that names are sup pressed, or publication suspended, until time has removed the cause of silence. It seems to have been so in the Gospel story. There is more than one indication of regard for the feeling of those who appear in the sacred narrative, as where Mark and Luke evade the fact that Matthew was once a publican, while Matthew himself glories in his shame. Even S. John, who tells us most frankly of Mary of Bethany, hesitates to identify her, except by a stray hint, with any other stage of the Gospel narrative. Yet the conclusion is almost irresistible that the Mary whom he calls Magdalene, who next appears under that title for the first time in his story, within less than a week after the scene of the anoint ing, is the same as Mary of Bethany. It is incomprehensible that Mary of Bethany in the administration of perfumed ointment should have exhausted her brave devotion, and, within a week's time, should not have appeared with the other faithful women at the foot of the Cross, or at the sepulchre in the garden. But if Mary of Magdala be the name by which Mary of Bethany was known to the world — a distinguishing name not needed or loved at the home in Bethany — a consistency of action between Mary of Bethany and Mary Magdalene illuminates the narrative. The devotion of Mary of Bethany is vindicated under her more famous name of Mary Magdalene. Not only did she sit at the feet of Christ at home. Not only did she anoint Him at the feast of Beth any. She followed Him to the Cross; she watched Him at the tomb. She was the first to see Him risen from the grave.
It is ill work to uncover family skeletons. But fortunate is the family that has none in its closet. It is more common than one would be apt to believe that a family noted for its cultivated Christian atmosphere, and for the fine ideals of its household life, none the less is shadowed forever by the memory of dis grace in respect of some member of it, and shrinks at secret recollections that bring al ways a wince of pain. Thus the blameless suffer in silence for the sins of others. There is no excuse for mentioning such a situation except to describe the splendid triumph that sometimes arises out of it.
There is reason to believe that such a shadow rested upon that pure and perfect home in Bethany, where Jesus of Nazareth was the most intimate of friends. That would be the reason for the marked reserve of the Gospels in the references to this home — the stray hints that mercifully concealed the unnecessary truth so long as the living might be wounded by it, yet offering clues that to after ages, when the four Gospels were put together, would be certain to reveal the story, as a lesson in the inner history and redemption of a human soul.
"While there is nothing in Holy Scripture definitely to settle the question, the tradi tions of a thousand years have held that Mary of Bethany and Mary Magdalene and the Woman that was a Sinner are the same. Such is the testimony of Tertullian, and S. Cyprian, and S. Jerome, and S. Augustine, and S. Gregory the Great, and Clement and Cyril of Alexandria, and such has been the belief, in more modern times, of English Churchmen like Lightfoot, and Farrar, and Pusey.
According to this view, support is given to the tradition that at one time Mary of Beth any had broken away from the quiet life of her village, and had become notorious for a life of delirious and reckless pleasure. There are legends in the Talmud which speak of her beauty, the fame of her lovely hair, her wealth, her intrigues. Her hus band was a doctor of the law whose jealousy was so great, that he was wont to keep her closely imprisoned. The high-spirited Jewess revolted against this hateful restraint, joined fortunes with a gay officer of Magdala, and accompanied him to that town, where she led a' life of such brilliant and un bridled indulgence that she always kept the name of "the Magdalene." She was beautiful; she was fascinating. But she was vain; she was avaricious; she was lustful; gluttonous; jealous; tempestuous and indo lent. For out of her Christ drove the seven demons of mortal sin.
It is she that is the penitent whom S. Luke describes, but does not name. In the old calendar of the English Church she was so identified and commemorated on the Feast of S. Mary Magdalene, the twenty-second of July. It is she who originates the act of devotion which she repeats two years afterward at Bethany. It is this first anointing that gives significance to the second. S. John remembers this long afterward, when he de scribes Mary of Bethany as "that Mary which anointed the Lord with ointment, and wiped His feet with her hair." S. Luke, who describes the original penitent bestowing her ointment upon the Christ, makes no mention of her name. But he seems to hint at her identity when he takes care to begin the next succeeding paragraph with the name of Mary Magdalene.
If this interpretation of the story be accepted, the anointing at Bethany, beautiful and full of meaning already, gains immensely in significance. Mary of Bethany has been for two years a changed woman. She has become generous, and humble, and chaste, and temperate, meek, kind, and diligent. She has renounced her evil associations, and all her old charm is exerted in a life so noble and pure that everyone is convinced of her sincerity. She has become what it had always been in her inmost soul to be, and what God had put her in the world to be. The miracle that had taken place within her soul dated from the time when Jesus Christ, had said to her, "Thy sins are for given. Go in peace."
Then two years pass. The Pharisees have plotted the destruction of Jesus. Within a week the Son of Man is to be lifted up upon the Cross of Calvary. She may not suspect the whole truth, but Mary of Bethany has some intuition of the approaching end. A feast is given at Bethany in honor of Jesus. A large concourse of people is there. Mary desires to pay some great farewell trib ute to the Master to whom she owes her life. It shall be a public tribute, but it shall tell the inner history of her soul, and what she owes to Him, without the speaking of a word, and none but He shall understand her meaning.
She brings with her an alabaster cruse of ointment, just like the one she had brought two years before, when she came as the penitent Magdalene. It gleams in her hand like a lustrous pearl, and the balm which it contains is priceless. She has kept it from the time of her old life, a souvenir of her discarded vanity. What she had done two years be fore as a penitent she now does again, with the gladness of one redeemed. She breaks the alabaster cruse, as she had done then, as if to say, "Do you remember?" She anoints His feet, as she had done then. Now, as then, her hair falls in rippling masses, and she wipes His feet, as she had done then, with the long tresses. Nothing is changed, except that now she does with a smile what she had done then with bitter tears, and be fore she has finished she anoints His head also, as a tribute to a King. The house is filled with the odor of the ointment. A peculiar fragrance steals upon the senses, and brings back the memory of that day in which she gained her pardon, and began her expiation.
S. Matthew says that "when Jesus under stood it, ' ' He made His declaration concerning the everlasting fame of Mary's tribute to Him. He understood it. None but He could understand that in a public tribute this woman had managed to convey to Him her private gratitude, and to repeat the secret history of the salvation of her soul.
The modern Biblical students who reject the identification of Mary of Bethany with Mary of Magdala and "the woman who was a sinner" appear to do so chiefly for two reasons external to the bare record of the narrative. They say that the beautiful and devout character described in Mary of Beth any is inconsistent with the notion that she was ever a notorious sinner. It is remark able that this objection prevails most widely among those who have ceased to emphasize the power of divine Grace — a gift coming in from the outside to change human nature and life. Yet the story of the whole New Testa ment may almost be said to be a story of changed lives. It is quite consistent with the Gospel story to regard the character of Mary of Bethany as one of the fruits of the saving grace conferred by the life of Christ.
The other objection to the identification of Mary of Bethany with the sinful woman of the earlier incident is based upon the contention that the same woman would be unlikely to perform twice exactly the same act of anointing. But the truth is that, if we admit the identification, the repetition of the anointing is the very thing that gives it its intense personal significance, and accounts for the extraordinary commendation of our Lord.
And if Mary Magdalene told the story of her changed life by anointing Christ at Bethany, with a designed reference to her former anointing of Him at the beginning of her expiation, then she has also described to us, by a striking symbolic action, the right attitude of every Christian life toward its own past failure.
For the fact that always most squarely faces a changed inner life or experience lies exactly in the repetition of things un changed. The new spirit finds not a new task, but the repetition of an old task. This repetition, this sameness, the same alabaster cruse, the repeating of an old action, the floating upon the senses of a fragrance charged with memories — this is the greatest trial that confronts him who has determined upon a new life, a fresh resolution. And also, — more inspiring truth, — this sameness, this repetition, is the very element that contains the utmost opportunity for the expression of the new life; no other could contain so much.
An intense emotional change, or alteration of current, within one's soul seems to demand, at first, a corresponding change in all that lies outside.1 The realization comes, al most with the force of a blow, that nothing in fact is changed at all. Here is a village household, whose inmates are passing through some agonizing crisis. Within this house the atmosphere is charged with the most poignant anxiety. Life and death sway in the balances. Nerves are held tense, and souls are upon the rack of dread. At last the crisis passes. The tension is relieved. The dread uncertainty is past. Then the village clock strikes an hour, calmly, deliberately, as though it were like any other hour. Its slow strokes beat upon the consciousness the cold, dull fact that nothing is changed; all is the same. One is brought back to the old routine of life that must be taken up again. The world, which should have held its breath during the hours of our agonized suspense, has moved on relentlessly. The new is like the old.
When a great grief sweeps over the soul, its most persistent pain arises from the fact that the change which has touched one's in most life is set over against an everlasting sameness of all things else. The future seems cruel in its too exact resemblance to the past. There is a repetition of scenes that wring the heart with old memories. The same duties face us as before. The old routine confronts us, as rigid as ia treadmill. Only live to face this truth long enough, and, at last, the sameness that was so hard to bear becomes the source of comfort and inspiration. The old scenes, because they are consecrated by the past, become touched with a splendor that nothing new and untried can equal. The old tasks begin to call forth new energies because of the memories by which they are transfigured and glorified. The per fume that once was mingled with tears stirs in the senses, at last, a deep and abiding joy.
So it is with one who, becoming dissatisfied with himself, faces life with some new resolution to make it nobler and more worthy than the past. The new determination within the soul seems to require a new world to work in. In the inspiration of some high resolve one wishes to escape from the old, and feels that the new energy requires new circumstances in which to express itself. One almost believes that the old circumstances will some how be changed by the fervor of the new resolution. But the first test of the new enthusiasm is its discovery that nothing is changed at all. Here are the old duties to be taken up again, and the old temptations to be resisted. The test of real progress answers the question whether under the same circumstances one will yield again to the same temptation. The life that has real power behind its change of determination often discovers at last what it was meant to be, not in the finding of some new task, but through the in fusion of a new spirit in the old task. The finest dedication of life for the future is fragrant with an odor that belongs to the past.
Mary of Magdala is no mourner over her past failure. Innocence is good ; but virtue is better. She regrets the past. But somehow the memory even of her failure reflects the glory that now shines upon the present and the future. There is no perfume so grateful to the soul as the fragrance heavy with the odor of a past that has been redeemed.