Read Mark 14:3-9
“She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial. Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.” (Mark 14:8-9)
This unnamed woman is the first believer. That’s why Jesus tells us that she will be remembered wherever the Gospel is proclaimed.
This may seem unlikely. After all, Jesus is drawing near his Passion. He had called the twelve in the earliest days of his public ministry. Surely they were the first believers.
And yet, of all the Gospels Mark’s is hardest on the disciples. They followed Jesus for three years. But they clearly struggled to internalize and to embody his central teaching.
Jesus was teaching them that following him meant to take up a way of living: the way of dying and rising. Dying to a narrow life and rising to greater life.
Three times Jesus predicted his suffering, death, and resurrection. And three times the disciples rejected what Jesus said.
First, Peter rebukes Jesus. “That’ll never happen!” he says. Jesus famously tells him, “Get behind me Satan! You’re still collaborating with the oppressive forces at work in this world.” Following Jesus means denying yourself, taking up your cross, and following him. You have to lose your earthly life to live a God-saturated, God-animated life. (Mark 8:31-38)
Next, the disciples just don’t get it but also don’t ask Jesus to explain. Instead, they argue among each other about who’s the greatest. Jesus responds to their cluelessness by telling them that the first must be last. Humbly serving all comers is the only kind of greatness recognized in the Kingdom of God. (Mark 9:30-37)
Finally, James and John use the third prediction as the occasion to ask Jesus to sit at his right hand and at his left hand. They want to secure special status for themselves in the inmost circle. Jesus says, “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” (Mark 10:32-44)
In other words, Jesus tells them, and he tells us, that his followers will participate in his death. As St. Paul puts it, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death.” (Philippians 3:10)
The disciples repeatedly balk at participating in Jesus’ suffering and death. And that is where the unnamed woman enters the narrative. She anoints Jesus for his death. She acknowledges the way of dying and rising and accepts it as her own.
Too often we endure Holy Week as if it were a ghastly movie required as annual viewing. We watch Jesus suffer and die for us. Frequently, some will even shed tears at the thought of his agony and his selfless sacrifice for us. A few will get really personal about it, acknowledging that Jesus died not only for the sins of the world but for my own sins.
I’m convinced that this is all very sincere. And I’m telling you that you’re missing the central point. Maybe even dodging it a bit.
By thinking of Jesus’ death as only something he did for you, you can avoid his very clear teaching that following him means to participate in his death. To give our lives for the healing of the world. Healing from hunger, from oppression, from tyranny, from prejudice, from violence, from hatred.
Rising to new life means first to die to the pursuit of achievement and status and comfort, to die to control and being right and getting our due.
To take up new life in Christ, we must first let go of the universe that we have constructed around ourselves. Only then can we genuinely take hold of the life that Jesus offers us right now. A life that will stretch into eternity.
As new creations in Christ, eventually suffering and sorrow and loneliness will no longer define our lives. We will love everyone we meet with complete assurance that they too are overjoyed to be with us. Above all, we will know the peace of Christ’s perpetual presence in our midst. It will be like standing together and singing to an eternally glorious sunrise.
But during Holy Week, we are reminded of one commentator’s observation. Resurrection is only for the dead. The way of life passes through the cross. To share in Christ’s resurrection, we must first participate in his death.