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Anointing and Anointed

Thursday, April 11, 2019

Christ Means “Anointed”

Anointing and Anointed
Thursday, April 11, 2019

Six days before the Passover, Jesus went to Bethany, where Lazarus was, whom he had raised from the dead. They gave a dinner for him there; Martha waited on them and Lazarus was among those at the table. Mary brought in a pound of very costly ointment, pure nard, and with it anointed the feet of Jesus, wiping them with her hair; the house was full of scent of the ointment. —John 12:1-3

Cynthia Bourgeault continues reflecting on Mary Magdalene and Jesus’ experiences of anointing.

While the anointing at Bethany, taken in isolation, may strike the modern reader as an exceptional and even exotic event, . . . ritual anointing figured prominently in [Jesus’] work. . . . In the healings of both the deaf man in Mark 7:33 and the blind man in John 9:6, he is depicted as performing this anointing using his own spittle. . . . If scriptural tradition remembers correctly that Mary Magdalene received a healing at his hands, it is likely that anointing figured in this as well.

In fact, claims the historian Bruce Chilton, Jesus may actually have learned the art of ritual anointing from Mary Magdalene! . . . Chilton speculates that her struggles with demons may have brought her into the healing and shamanic circles for which her region of Galilee was well known. [1] Anointing may have been a core piece of the healing arts with which she gifted [Jesus], accounting for his increasing divergence from the Nazirite path to which he was originally consecrated. . . .

From an interior stance based initially on judgment and renunciation, [Jesus] threw himself headlong in the direction of inclusivity and wholeness: toward a purity of heart that comes not from withholding, but from letting everything flow. The fact that he may have discovered this truth in the context of a deeply flowing and intimate relationship with the person whom biblical tradition overwhelmingly remembers as his koinonos, his companion, makes a good deal of sense—at least, to anyone who has ever been in love.

For we know that that’s what real love does: it changes outcomes and creates whole new people. Whether or not Mary Magdalene and Jesus shared an outward ministry of anointing (and there is a good likelihood that they did), inwardly their life together was a continuous, mutual anointing. The specific incident at Bethany when she ritually bathed his head and feet in perfume was merely the outer sign of the inner fragrance of their love. . . . In this mutual sealing of love, the two become a new reality, and old habits and self-definitions are sprung loose. For Magdalene, the anointing of Jesus’s love freed her from “seven demons” and launched her on the path toward inner integration. For Jesus, the anointing of Mary Magdalene’s love freed him from his self-identification with the Nazirite role and allowed him to trust his heart.

[1] See Bruce Chilton, Mary Magdalene: A Biography (Doubleday/Image: 2005), 63.

Cynthia Bourgeault, The Meaning of Mary Magdalene: Discovering the Woman at the Heart of Christianity (Shambhala: 2010), 182-185. Note that Bourgeault believes “that the traditional memory of Mary Magdalene as Jesus’s anointer is substantially accurate.”

Image credit: Mary Magdalene’s Box of Very Precious Ointment (detail), James Tissot, 1886-1994, Brooklyn Museum, New York City, New York.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: If we are fully to avail ourselves of Mary Magdalene’s wisdom presence today, it will be, I believe, primarily through recovering a wisdom relationship with the ritual of anointing—that is, coming to understand it . . . as an act of conscious love marking the passageway into both physical and spiritual wholeness. —Cynthia Bourgeault
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