It was some years ago now that I went to call on a man who was in his last hours of hospice care.
I made my way in through the side door into the kitchen for his hospital bed was blocking the front entry. When I entered I found his wife of 60 years, his daughter, and his son-in-law sitting around the room. In that moment their attention was not on the one occupying the bed, but on one another. The conversation was easy and light — or as light as it could be, given the circumstances.
Something brought them up short, though, for even though they were talking with one another, their hearts were riveted on the one who was dying. His breathing had changed.
We gathered close. We offered prayer. And before we ended, we realized that his breathing had ceased altogether.
I am not often there for precise moments such as these, but when I am, one senses one is standing on holy ground as we wonder at the mysterious line between living and dying. This time stands out, though, for this is what happened next.
His daughter picked up his hand and began to study it. We watched then as his fingers became mottled. For of course, when the heart stopped pumping, the blood flow stopped as well
She was entirely respectful, to be sure. Her gesture was not without love. She was simply curious and full of wonder at this mystery. But it was also unusual. In fact, I expect I remember it so well for I had not seen the likes of it before nor have I seen it since — this utter sense of ease in the presence of death.
I thought of this today as I sat with the image before us now of Mary anointing Jesus’ feet and wiping them with her hair. (One notes, of course, that this is not the case in all four Gospels. In Matthew and in Mark, Jesus’ head is anointed with this precious perfume — understood to be a sign of his kingship, his royalty.)
Oh yes, I think of this now for it was the practice in the time of Jesus to anoint the body before burial. And this practice, as I understand it, always began with anointing the hands and the feet — the extremities — before the rest of the body was prepared. The hands and the feet — those places where often the signs of death can first be detected. And yes, those same hands and the feet — those parts of us which often first meet the world of the living.
And so it was that Mary may have been the only disciple in the room who truly comprehended what was to come in the next days. And while one would be hard pressed to say that Mary was comfortable with this certainty that Jesus would die, as she anoints his feet, clearly she is foreshadowing what custom would soon entail anyway. And more than that, of course? Jesus speaks out loud this truth that Mary had bought this costly perfume for just this purpose: to anoint him on the day of his burial. She must have known this day was at hand.
- Perhaps this was only possible because Mary had already seen the promise of God literally coming alive in the wonder of Jesus having brought her brother, Lazarus, back to life. Maybe Mary knew enough of God’s power to allow herself to be used as an oh – so – tender predictor of what would follow.
- Or maybe it was simply all she had and all she could do and so she did, thus foreshadowing the posture Jesus would take on with his disciples a few short days hence when he knelt to wash their feet. Maybe she was simply willing to stand (or kneel) in the mystery and to trust.
Still, I am captured now by the powerful symbolism of Mary anointing the feet of Jesus. I am remembering, for instance, the command to Moses to take off his shoes for his feet were standing on holy ground. And I find myself deeply aware that for many of us, our feet ground us — they are where we first physically meet this world God has made. And I wonder, I do, whether the act of taking off one’s shoes is not only a sign of respect, but a way in which we come closer to “the holy” itself.
- And so I wonder if by anointing his feet, Mary is also recognizing this — that in his living, Jesus was as ‘grounded’ as the rest of us. And that in being so ‘grounded,’ he made all of this and all of us somehow holy, too.
- Oh, I do wonder if she was honoring his utter humanity, even as she worshiped his divinity.
- I wonder if she was kneeling in the mystery where we often first see death, too, in feet and hands when life leaves us.
- And I wonder, too, what this looks like now today. For it seems to me that you and I are called to honor the same in one another. As Mary did. And of course, as Jesus did.
A long time ago I witnessed a daughter holding her dad’s hand as life left it. She did so with respect. With a deep sense of wonder. And an unusual measure of comfort.
I do wonder what it would look like if we all approached the places where life meets death with a deeper sense of wonder. I wonder if we could, if we would, only hold one another’s hands, if this might bring a greater gentleness to our life together. Indeed, what amazing gifts might must be ours if we could kneel and honor the humanity in another? I imagine we might just start to see the holy there as well.
And there is this. While Mary saved that pound of pure nard for the day of Jesus’ burial, she anointed him while he was still alive. Mary anointed Jesus for continued love and service. And for sacrifice.
Oh, how might we begin to see this world change if we also did this for one another?