As he was at table, a woman of the city who was a sinner brought an alabaster flask of ointment, and standing behind him weeping, she wet his feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair, and kissed his feet and anointed them with ointment . . . . Then turning to the host he said, . . . ‘her sins are forgiven, for she loved much’ . . . . And he said to the woman, ‘Your faith has saved you; go in peace’” (Luke 7:36-50).
A servant slips me through the kitchen
Right to the head table.
There he is!–reclined on the bench,
Sandals off for supper.
Will I manage it, or be tossed out?–
Me, pushing in among men?
Nothing for it but to try.
Now sidelong he sees me moving–
Good, he won’t be startled.
The ointment is thick and smooth,
I put a dab on his right foot,
Then rub it in, and kiss the scented place.
The remnants of my miscarried loves fall out
In this extravagance.
Whatever adoration may redeem of loss,
This Jesus is its resting place.
The man across the table smirks.
The one beside me reaches to push me off
When Jesus, leaning forward, looks at him.
Taunts fly at me–
‘Tart, hey pretty piece!
Over here–My feet need a scrubbing!’
I look around. ‘Hold on, now,’
I’ve seen some beards and faces here–
If I slept around was I alone?’
The shouts and laughs renew.
Now they point at each other,
Jeer and catcall at me.
My rage-tears fall on dabs of ointment.
Keep rubbing, toes and instep, arch and ankle,
Right foot and left,
No way will I stop now.
For my good loves, cut off
By laws, or lack of means or days,
Or sheer confusion or backs of hands–
No place for them in measured life–
I pour the nard,
For the good in me
That finds no path,
Love mangled by fear and need,
And for these leering faces hiding pain.
Now his feet are so wet the ointment runs–
I hadn’t figured this, now what for a towel?
My hair will do.
Around the ankles, back and forth–finish up.
He looks me in the eye
But speaks to Simon the host
He says, what I’ve done is good!
That I should go in peace.
‘And to you also peace, Rabboni,’ I stammer.
I hurry, stumbling, out
To the field by Simon’s house, and quiet air.
No Place for Love
In the church discussion groups where I’ve been–“Renew,” or centering meditation, or whatever kind–people are warm and non-judgmental, often quite free in telling their life and faith stories. They could be an insurance agent, a homemaker, a music teacher, a farmer, or a professor. The viewpoint is: “This is my personal thing, that works for me—I want to hear how faith is for you.” ‘Small faith-communities,’ as these groups within parishes are sometimes called if they’re ongoing, are similar to something ecumenical, like the “Tuesday Night Prayer Group” described by Patricia Hopkins and Sherry Ruth Anderson in The Feminine Face of God. A willing vulnerability and openness to the sacred among a group of kind, warmly supportive people–that’s the common denominator, I’d say.
You take a risk in becoming open to the sacred. It’s a reaching back of something from a possible future into a person’s present, something hoped for, not inevitable. It’s also a reaching out–out to other people in a present faith community. And it’s a reaching back from a present moment into the past time of tradition–we pluck something from there: an ancient story of a woman getting pregnant after menopause; a tale of star-crossed friendship; an incident of a woman crashing an all-male dinner party to perform an act of extravagant reverence; or a passage from St. Augustine. We make the ancient things our own. They get remade, resurrected, refreshed in a moment of uptake, of motion into a new life.
Christians call Abraham “our father in faith,” who “believed God and it was accounted to him as righteousness.” He did things like pawning out his wife Sarah to a neighboring clan patriarch as a temporary wife, to get safe passage through a district. This did make trouble for the clan leader. Not for Father Abraham, though. He got his wife back and his safe passage too. We need to open up scripture study to all dimensions of human experience.
The sex lives of heroes of faith in the Bible, when you look at the stories, were often not what you’d suppose. The epistle to the Hebrews, in a list of heroes of faith from Abraham to Moses to Jesus, includes Rahab the harlot of Jericho, because she helped the Israelite spies reconnoitring the town! A “harlot” who betrayed her own people!
The woman who poured ointment on Jesus’s feet had learned how to give of herself in extravagant love, and that’s why she was able to give Jesus what he called an anointing for his burial. No one else thought or dared to do it. He said she’d be remembered for this, down through the ages, and she has been. Medieval tradition claimed that this “woman of the city” was Mary Magdalene, who first saw the resurrected Jesus. But there’s no scriptural basis for that idea. In fact, a passage in John’s gospel says it was a different Mary who poured the ointment on Jesus, namely Mary of Jericho, the sister of Lazarus.
People can learn from all aspects of their experience, and gain new abilities. A man moved to our parish who, along with his wife, had trained as a facilitator for centering prayer groups at Snowmass, Colorado, at Father Thomas Keating’s monastery—the center of the ‘centering’ movement. Now he had just gone through an agonizing divorce, which he didn’t want, and followed his ex-wife in moving to our state, because he wanted to stay near his children. He had no job in his field, was doing part-time work, struggling to get visiting arrangements with the children. Urgently needing to break his fixation on his ex-wife, he was generally reachable at his new girlfriend’s place. At church, he didn’t sit passively in the pew but instead started a centering prayer group. Though he couldn’t conform his present life to church teachings, he thought the best thing to do for the time was to bring what he’d learned to other people, as well as gaining from our faith, by initiating us into that calming, mind-emptying form of prayer. He was a small-scale hero of faith in his own way, a man of great love who, while we knew him, couldn’t find a place where it could be fully received. The ‘city woman’ could have been his patron saint.