Palm Sunday: An unnamed woman and her prophetic act at Bethany
I have no memory. Every Palm Sunday I join the parade of parishioners, waving palm branches and singing “Hosanna” as we process into church. Each year, I am utterly devastated then when the passion is read. The happy hosannas are drowned in the refrain “Were you there?” and I am reminded again that the way of Jesus is the way of the cross. Such is the emotional roller coaster that begins Holy Week.
All three synoptic gospels record Jesus’ triumphal entrance into Jerusalem (Matt 21:1-9, Mark 11:1-10, Luke 19:28-40), which we celebrate at the beginning of our Palm Sunday liturgy. The procession begins at the crest of the Mount of Olives near Bethpage, just a short distance from Bethany, which is today the modern village of al-Eizariya (Arabic for “The Place of Lazarus”).
Photo of Bethpage, courtesy of Catholic Theological Union Biblical Study and Travel Programs
Bethany on the Mount of Olives serves as Jesus’ home away from home on his visits to the Jerusalem. During times of pilgrimage the city’s population would increase to four times its normal size, forcing pilgrims to find housing in the villages surrounding the city. Following the pilgrim route from Jericho, the town of Bethany sits halfway up the southeastern slope of the Mount of Olives and about two miles from Jerusalem. The pilgrims ascended from nearly 800 feet below sea level in Jericho to 2,500 feet above sea level in about 15 miles.
Photo of a Bethany olive grove, courtesy of Catholic Theological Union Biblical Study and Travel Programs
Jesus found more than hospitality in Bethany; he also found friendship with Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, whom the Gospel of John locates here. John’s gospel records “now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus” (John 11:5). As Jesus’ ministry progresses and he is noticed by the religious leaders in Jerusalem, perhaps Bethany becomes a safe place for people such as Nicodemus to engage in discussion (John 3).
Bethany is also where Jesus attends a dinner at the house of Simon the Leper. Here an unnamed woman anoints his head with expensive ointment (Matt. 26:6-13, Mark 14:3-9). At a luxury dinner it would have been the custom that the hands and feet of the guests were washed and their body perfumed before the dinner began. Usually this would be done by servants. But this anointing by the woman isn’t a ritual of hospitality. Jesus sees it as a prophetic preparation for his burial (Matt. 26:12, Mark 14:8). It must have been a powerful moment of understanding between the unnamed woman and Jesus when she poured the precious ointment on his head.
In John’s gospel we have the washing of the feet, where Jesus demonstrates how his disciples are to serve (John 13:4-5, 12-17). In Matthew and Mark’s gospels, Jesus has told the disciples that “whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave” (Matt. 20:26-27, Mark 10:44). It seems in this generous, tender act by an unknown woman that she understood. She got it. She recognizes Jesus, the impending passion, and responds rightly. “Amen, I say to you, wherever the gospel is proclaimed to the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her” (Matt. 26:13, Mark 14:9).
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Image: Illustration by Angela Cox