Monday, 21 February 2011

Mary, Martha and touch

A partial explanation for my choices of pictures in six pictures of Mary and Martha.

Andrew, when I gave this ‘sermon’ yesterday at St Luke’s you said that the picture of Jesus and Mary of Bethany in the stained glass window was disturbing because it takes us close to Da Vinci Code territory and another friend of mine, Liz, has said the same when she ‘read’ my blog. I thought I’d better explain this choice of picture. I couldn’t at the time because someone changed the subject of ‘touch’ and ‘intimacy’ in the pictures so abruptly. I think because it made them feel uncomfortable.

I chose the picture of Jesus holding Mary of Bethany because it is rare example of a picture of Jesus touching a woman in a way that speaks of intimacy with them. There are others I have found e.g. there is an interesting modern picture of Jesus with the Samaritan woman which some people find shocking because Jesus and the woman’s legs are touching (I’ll blog it some time soon). Pictures of Jesus touching men except to heal them or rescue them from drowning (Peter) are even rarer!

There are some pictures of people (mostly women again) touching Jesus and pictures of the story of the woman (sometimes Mary of Bethany, sometimes Mary Magdalene and sometimes difficult to say) anointing the feet of Jesus with perfume are the most common. But it should be noted that in many of the foot-anointing pictures the woman is not shown actually touching Jesus. The picture by Stephen St Claire makes the point that she could not have put the perfume on Jesus’ feet and wiped it away with her hair if she did not touch them. It is perhaps why some find it such a disturbing image.

Why do we find pictures of Jesus touching people or people touching Jesus so disturbing? It is of course because all four gospel writers are clear that Jesus was unmarried and didn’t appear to have a wife/partner. He did though have friends – some of whom like Mary and Martha of Bethany and Mary Magdalene were women. It seems to me highly likely that Jesus touched his friends and his friends touched him. This is what friends do. When people love one another they touch one another because touch is a form of deep communication.

Of course people touch one another when they have sex and this is surely what has made artists avoid showing Jesus touching people and people touching Jesus. But of course touch is not just for sex, it’s also for reassurance e.g. when holding the hand of a child to lead them somewhere or in other (non-western) cultures when holding hands with a friend when walking together. Touch also brings comfort. A person will put their arm around a friend – or even someone they don’t know very well - who is going through a difficult time to comfort them. And finally touch can be healing as when the woman with a haemorrhage touches Jesus (Luke 8: 40-56, etc) and as when Jesus touches people when he heals them. (Interestingly artists are reasonably happy to portray Jesus touching people when he’s healing them.)

This brings me back to the picture of Jesus and Mary of Bethany in the stained glass window. This picture is all the more ‘disturbing’ because Mary is clearly pregnant. Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code is based on the pretence that Jesus had a sexual relationship with Mary Magadalene and there is not a shred of evidence for this. It has never been suggested that Jesus was any more than friends with Mary of Bethany. Why then does the artist portray Mary of Bethany as pregnant? Who knows? But why should she not have been? Women do get pregnant. Is the artist implying that the father of the baby is Jesus? Would it be that shocking if he was?

Why are we so afraid to see Mary of Bethany or Mary Magdalene’s anointing of Jesus’ feet for what it clearly was – an act of great love and tenderness - and so ready to turn it into something else? John (and Matthew and Mark) but not Luke clearly sees the anointing as foreshadowing Jesus’ anointing after his death (but surely again this is an act of particular intimacy). There is no suggestion that kings’ feet were ever anointed but some have been ready to see the anointing as something to do with Jesus’ kingship. And if its ‘just’ an anointing why the business with the hair?

As I said yesterday there seems to be some confusion amongst the gospel writers about who it was exactly that anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped the perfume away with their hair. John has Mary of Bethany anointing the feet of Jesus. Luke has it that it is Mary Magdalene who does so – or rather in his account it is ‘a woman of the city who was a sinner’ and a few verses later introduces Mary Magdalene to his readers. In Luke’s gospel Mary of Bethany just sits at his feet rather than anointing them. (Matthew and Mark do not name the woman and she pours the perfume over Jesus’ head). So in theory it could be both Mary of Bethany and Mary Magdalene/someone else entirely. Artists are similarly confused as reflected by the picture in my blog by Vergilius Master and often conflate the stories from Luke and John as in the picture by Blake. (Is that a perfume jar or a cushion? If a jar is Martha criticising Mary for pouring the perfume on Jesus’ feet but if so shouldn’t that then be Judas?)

One of the reasons why I think the confusion between Mary Magdalene and Mary of Bethany is interesting is that the first (traditionally) represents sex and the second friendship/intimacy. In Luke’s gospel the first is a risky prostitute in need of forgiveness (c.f. Luke’s story of ‘Mary Magdalene’ anointing Jesus’ feet (Luke 7: 36-50)), the second commendable (c.f. Luke’s story of Mary of Bethany sitting at Jesus’ feet like an attentive friend (Luke 10 38-42)). Whilst in John’s gospel it is Mary of Bethany who does the anointing and Mary Magdalene is the friend who meets Jesus in the garden after his resurrection and (significantly?) isn’t allowed to touch him.

Who then was it that anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped the perfume away with their hair? The prostitute or the intimate friend?

1 comment:

  1. Enjoyed this post. Thanks. Found your site by a google images search for Jesus, Mary, Martha, Blessing.

    Rev. Jeff W
    Mississauga, ON Canada