There’s a lot of shouting in the Easter story, a lot of people thinking they’re right and making it known. We have parades and lynch mobs and debates and screams and mockery, a cacophony drowning out the truth of the situation. At the eye of the storm is Jesus; no-one seems to understand him, no-one seems to truly listen. Everyone seems convinced by the rightness of their position that the man who’s on a journey towards torture and death is almost hidden in plain sight.
At the quiet heart of Holy Week, one person seems to get it, one person seems to understand. Interrupting a meal between friends, she breaks open a jar of expensive perfumed anointing oil and pours it over Jesus. In many ways it’s a shocking moment – the unexpectedness, the scent permeating the house, the inappropriateness, the expense. The woman is immediately the victim of virtue-signalling, the disciples protesting that the perfume was expensive, that it should have been sold to help the poor. But we know that one of them had his hand in the common purse, and you wonder if they would have had a similar reaction if they hadn’t been scandalised by this woman and her actions.
In Luke’s gospel a similar incident occurs, but at a different time. There the woman is identified as sinful (and it’s always assumed that this sin was sexual in nature, when for all we know she stole stuff), and we tend to conflate these stories, pushing them through the grinder of tradition until the woman is depicted as a prostitute. There’s no evidence for this (and even if she was, what would it matter at the heart of a story of grace?) but it fits a narrative, and it’s another convenient excuse for the men to reject her act of worship.
But Jesus doesn’t reject it – he’s thankful for it. It’s a moment of intimacy, sure, but the intimacy that comes from him and the women being the only two people who know what’s going on. She knows he’s a king, she knows he’s going to die, and Jesus seems grateful for that acknowledgement. We read the Easter story as Jesus saving us from our sins, but here’s someone who’s more concerned with looking after him and his needs. On the eve of a great sacrifice, the woman ministers to Jesus and in doing so secures a place in history.
But in the moment there’s ‘slut shaming’ and virtue signalling and a criticism of her ministry. And even though she’s the one who gets it right, who helps Jesus, who worships and honours and anoints while everyone else argues and jostles for position, she’s still dismissed, her ministry and her act of prophecy devalued. That happens to women in the Church far too often, even though here the women carries out a pastoral act of worship, even though later Mary becomes a preacher of Jesus’s resurrection.
At the quiet heart of Holy Week, an unnamed woman understands what’s needed and does something about it, sacrificing her money and her reputation and her investment in the process. And in doing so she becomes a model of discipleship for us all. Maybe that, and her act of grace, is why Jesus said she’d be remembered.