On Holy Monday a reflection on Mary of Bethany

Gestures that matter

 Gestures that matter  ING-013
28 March 2024

On the university of Nigeria campus where I grew up, the Protestant kids and Catholic kids would sometimes argue, benignly, about our differences. “All you need is to believe in Christ. There’s no need for tradition and sacraments and all those Catholic things,” one of the kids said.

This felt unappealing to me, too unadorned, too dry, the idea that all one needed to do was say “I believe.” Besides, what does it mean to believe if actions do not reflect that belief? But even as the self-styled teenage Catholic apologist that I was, I could not properly make the case for why rituals and symbols mattered, and why I found them moving. I wish I had read this scripture then as I do now. The story of the woman who anoints Jesus is a lovely illustration of the importance of rituals and of symbolic acts. Of course rituals speak to something larger, but they matter in themselves. There is beauty and worth in her decision to anoint Jesus, even if it isn’t the most practical or utilitarian decision. Symbolic acts and rituals touch a universal part of us, and they have an emotional force that lingers and can sustain us.

Her simple act of anointing him is so important that Jesus says she will be remembered for it; of course her decision to anoint him comes from her faith, but Jesus does not say she will be remembered for her faith, he says she will be remembered for the anointing.

This passage also illustrates, as do other stories of his encounters with women, the regard and respect Jesus has for women. Jesus gives her dignity, in a cultural landscape that does not give much dignity to women. He recognizes her ability to look beyond the surface and her awareness of what truly matters. The men think in predictable ways, saying the money should have gone to the poor, but she intuitively has the deep wisdom to understand that at this moment in Jesus’ journey, her symbolic act of anointing him is what matters most. She is also very decisive — she goes in and breaks open the jar and pours it on his head, and this suggests that it was not an after-thought, she came specifically to do this. And Jesus publicly supports and praises her. It is not qualified praise; it is the praise given to a human being. He does not say she has done well ‘for a woman’ or ‘as a woman;’ he says she will be remembered, and we know that he means she will be remembered just as any human being who has done something beautiful would be. The church can benefit from the wisdom of women.

Ka udo di, ka ndu di... [Let peace be. Let life be.]

By Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie