Monday, June 12, 2017
It All Started With A Monk: A Reprise
It’s ok to admit it this morning: Reunion Weekend is overwhelming. It is dizzying and confusing, wonderful, and sometimes terrifying. Some people are so confused they didn’t even make it to chapel. You would not believe the signs of disorder and chaos that I have seen on this campus on Sunday morning at the end of Reunion Weekend, as I make the slow walk up to St. Joseph’s Chapel. For those of you who did make it to the Memorial Eucharist, congratulations (you get extra credit): and I hope to speak to the confusion this morning. My own vantage point is mostly stationary. I work here, I live here; this is my home. I don’t have a plane to catch, a suitcase to pack, or a dormitory room to vacate. But the emotions that are stirred up by this weekend for me are always significant, and deserve theological consideration. Where is God in all of this? Right in the middle of it--ok, but where is the middle? What does the sacred center look like?
It doesn’t matter what year you graduated, there is a feeling of many times in your life coming together right now. Many people and storylines are regathering, and reconnecting. Different times in your life are coming up to greet you. Do you remember who you used to be? Things that had grown old are being made new. How will Kent shape you again? From a theological perspective, it were as if our arms were so full of memories, that something must give way. What should we hold onto? What is it now ok to let go of?
Several years ago, as I was preparing for this very service, I received some visitors. Three monks from the Order of the Holy Cross came to pay me a visit. Brother Robert, Brother Julian, and Brother Daniel came to visit the school founded by Father Frederick Sill, a monk from the same order, one hundred and eleven years ago. Walt Disney, who is one of my personal heroes, was fond of summing up all of his movies and theme parks and lives touched with the simple statement: It all started with a mouse. Somehow this simple phrase centered him, and humbled him as his work went in surprising directions. It gave him the right perspective to take it all in. Well, at Kent School, it all started with a monk. I thought of our history as the three monks and I said a prayer at the grave of Father Sill, just outside this chapel in the garden. The three monks and I toured the campus on a rainy day with something like this simple phrase in mind. It all started with a monk. A monk who certainly had no vision of his school eventually having a campus for girls, or a consolidated campus with boys and girls together. God help us. Yet it has all come to pass. The entire history of Kent is an exercise in faith, and we’re all part of it. The occasion of the monks’ visit was the founding of another school by the monks of Holy Cross: this time in Grahamstown, South Africa: Holy Cross School. As Kent was once founded for young men of modest or slender means, Holy Cross is attended by some of the poorest children on the Eastern Cape of South Africa, in a region ravaged by AIDS, and poverty. The most pressing needs for these children are medical care and education, and the school is adding a new grade each year. As we walked the campus of Kent School under school umbrellas, Brother Robert Sevensky, the Superior of Holy Cross, remarked: “Just look at this place. Imagine what Holy Cross School will be like in a hundred years.” With Grahamstown and its little school in mind, the complicated feelings and experience of this weekend became incredibly simple: education is the best way to change the world, one person at a time. And the quickest way to change the world is to change your own heart. It all started with a monk. And it is happening again.
Sometimes the lessons on Sunday can also help to simplify things on Reunion Weekend. Like the weekend itself, the story of an unnamed woman anointing Jesus can be incredibly complex and overwhelming. So how should we approach this story from Luke? In our shared history of Kent, it all started with a monk. In the lesson from Luke, it all started with a woman. It is a story that combines overwhelming gratitude, forgiveness, and healing, with a scandalous intimacy at a dinner party. Jesus is anointed with holy oil, but, more importantly, with the tears and hair of the woman. Jewish men and women who did not know each other generally didn’t speak in public at this time; they certainly didn’t touch each other. In the anointing, the oil and tears mingle on the feet of Jesus, and she wipes his feet tenderly with her hair. Everyone is scandalized by this woman. Everyone except Jesus. He is touched, literally, emotionally, and spiritually. It is easily the most loving thing that is done to Jesus in his recorded ministry. Jesus is usually the one giving love, even unto the cross. Here he receives love, without shame. It all started with a woman. The woman is unnamed by Luke; or is she? Many scholars, including me, believe that Luke is presenting the anointing tradition of Mary Magdalene, who is introduced immediately following the scandalous dinner party. Who was this remarkable woman?
Getting to know Mary Magdalene is like jumping into one of the most mysterious rivers of our tradition. And the church has been little help in finding, let alone navigating, this river--because the current is so strong. Let’s begin with background on the Marys we think we know, but haven’t ever really met. As Mary his mother gave birth to Jesus’s life, Mary Magdalene was the mid-wife of his death: the one who anointed Jesus before his crucifixion. However, this would be following solely Luke’s gospel, and only by a logical leap: “And behold, a woman of the city, who was a sinner, when she learned that he was at table in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster flask of ointment, and standing behind him at his feet, weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears, and wiped them with the hair of her head, and kissed his feet, and anointed them with the ointment.” The woman is unnamed in Luke, but, as mentioned, Mary Magdalene is introduced at the beginning of the next chapter (which the church specifically includes in today’s gospel text). Mary is described as a woman of means, a wealthy woman and patron, not as a prostitute, or even as a sinner. In no biblical tradition is she described as a prostitute.
The proximity of the woman who is a sinner (still not necessarily a prostitute) to Mary Magdalene in the text of Luke provides the connection; they must be the same woman. Mary Magdalene, the woman who is a sinner, is then the one anointing Jesus so intimately. This connection was first made official by Pope Gregory in the sixth century; there is no proof for it. But, lost in the sound and fury of Mary Magdalene’s alleged status as the woman who is a sinner, is the fact that Matthew, Mark, and John all agree that Jesus was anointed by Mary before his death. But she was not Mary Magdalene. It was more likely Mary of Bethany because the anointings all take place at Bethany. This is the sister of Martha and Lazarus; she has a few stories. Only John’s woman is explicitly Mary of Bethany in his anointing at Bethany. A logical assumption would then be that Luke’s unnamed woman is also Mary of Bethany because it follows the same structure of the anointing scenes of the other three gospels; it just doesn’t locate it specifically at Bethany. Despite the overwhelming agreement of three gospels, and the anonymity of Luke’s woman, the anointing tradition is most often associated with Mary Magdalene. What is happening here?
The tradition of anointing the human body was not embraced by the early church, and there is a great deal of mystery surrounding Mary Magdalene as a result. Bruce Chilton, a Religion professor at Bard College, and also an Episcopal priest, attempts to rectify the repression of this remarkable woman in his biography of Mary Magdalene.
“Mary and her nameless colleague in chapter 7 of Luke’s Gospel both show what other ancient documents demonstrate: Women in Jewish antiquity, particularly within the folk wisdom practiced in Galilee, exercised a prominent role as anointers. Their domain extended far beyond the conventional household, and there is evidence that significant groups of practitioners looked to these women to guide them in their quest to leave this world behind them and experience the divine world.”
Mary Magdalene’s suppression as an early leader in the church, which she was, as well as the first apostle—the first witness to Easter resurrection in the gospels, which she was, is likely the result of the early church’s discomfort with physical anointing. There is an unhidden element of eros in all four gospel traditions with the woman anointing Jesus with oil from the alabaster jar, not to mention the unseemly tears. And the hair. For his part, Jesus is not embarrassed by it; he is instead deeply moved by the woman’s love and tender devotion. But the male witnesses are quite alarmed. In all but one case, they are too disturbed to even name the woman directly. They knew exactly who she was. The four evangelists share the taboo panic with the witnesses; or rather they project it on to them.
The scenes with the anointing woman show that the evangelists and the early church were uncomfortable with powerful women anointing others as a spiritual practice of the church, yet it was too important for them to fully cover it up. So it’s there, but very confusing. Jesus also approved of it; all the gospels agree on that point, however reluctantly. Despite this institutional discomfort, the church has retained the remnant of the anointing tradition in four of its seven sacraments: Baptism (with the chrism, the oil anointing the forehead), Confirmation, Holy Orders, and Last Rites, with the laying on of hands. The hidden history is actually in front of our eyes, hiding in plain sight, in the sacraments of the church. What a strange way for an institution to continue its past while repressing the mystical female tradition of Judaism and the early church, and completely forgetting its first priestly practitioners. This is a mighty river with no name. It deserves one.
We often think of the love of God, the wisdom of the divine, coming directly from Jesus into the world. In this moment of time, Jesus stops in his ordinary rounds to receive God’s love from someone else. There is no moment quite like it anywhere in the gospels. Jesus received the anointing tradition, a priestly ritual, from a woman, but it was no dry formula. It is a personal religion, overflowing with love, with appreciation, with gratitude. With tears. The God in Mary Magdalene meets the God in Jesus Christ. When we live in gratitude, to our school or to our families, we are capable of giving God’s love to each other--even giving it back to Jesus, with our names, our lives, our tears. We are not passively receiving God’s love, we can also give it back. We were all given the gift of life. How we live it is the gift we give back to God. Your life is a sacred story.
May God bless you, your families, and all the lives you touch with your own.