The Anointer of Bethany

Faithful Disciple (First Century)
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One of the great women of the Gospels is remembered by her deed alone; her name is totally lost. Saint Mark relates that as Jesus sat at table in Bethany an anonymous woman proceeded to anoint his head with precious oil. The extraordinary value of the oil—virtually the equivalent of a year’s wages—gave rise to grumbling. Could not the money have been spent on the poor?  

Jesus silences the complainers and accepts the woman’s gesture. In fact he does more. He underscores the prophetic timeliness of her deed and so names it as one of the exceptional and defining moments of the Gospel. Her deed is comparable to Peter’s famous confession: “You are the Christ [the Messiah/Anointed One].” In that case, however, the disciples had recoiled from Jesus’ elaboration of what it meant to be God’s Anointed: that he would have to suffer and die. In this case, Jesus accepts without qualification the woman’s symbolic acclamation and once again interprets his messiahship—his mission—in terms of suffering and death. “She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for my burial.”  

Thus, in her wordless act of compassion, this woman recognized in Jesus the Anointed One (the Christ) who was about to die. Though her name would be forgotten, Jesus held her forth as the faithful disciple whose deed should be remembered wherever the Gospel is preached.  

“Truly, I say to you, wherever the gospel is preached in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.”  

—Mark 14:9 

© Liturgical Press.

Robert Ellsberg

Robert Ellsberg is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Orbis Books and the author of several award-winning books, including All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses for Our Time; Blessed Among All Women; and The Saints' Guide to Happiness.

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