Mary, the Impractical Woman

El-Azariya is the Arabic name for Bethany. It means “The Place of Lazarus.” The school I attended in Jerusalem was not more than a few hundred meters from Bethany, but since El-Azariya is in the West Bank, one has to take a circuitous route to get there. I had never visited the place until a few years ago, when I took an Arab bus to the village. I was disappointed to discover that the church that marked the grave of Lazarus appeared to be closed to visitors. I tried knocking on the door of the church courtyard until finally a nun appeared and graciously escorted me inside. She did not speak English but she was very kind and showed me to a place where I could sit and cool down. Eventually, another nun came and informed me that I was in a convent and that the church was further down the road!

The convent that I visited during my first visit to Bethany (I think it is more properly referred to as an abbey) was founded by Queen Melisende (1105-1161 AD), a remarkable woman who ruled Jerusalem for 30 years. She was born in Edessa to Morphia, an Armenian woman, and Baldwin, a Frankish knight. Melisende’s son, Amalric, had a daughter named Sibylla, who was raised in the same abbey founded by her grandmother. She too was destined to become a queen of Jerusalem. Her life has become the subject of many works of fiction, the most recent of which is the movie, “The Kingdom of Heaven.” The Crusader kingdom of Jerusalem had an unusual number of queens since women had a longer lifespan than men in the besieged kingdom. Their husbands, having fallen in battle, bequeathed their estates to their wives.

But of course, the most famous residents of Bethany are Lazarus and his two sisters, Mary and Martha. Of the three, Mary is accorded a special place of honor. When Martha expressed frustration that Mary remained seated listening to the teaching of Christ while she did all the serving, Jesus responded that “only one thing is necessary” and Mary “has chosen the better part.” When Jesus returned to Bethany in response to the news of Lazarus’ death, Mary did not rush to meet Jesus like her sister Martha, nor did she engage Jesus in a dialogue about the resurrection of the dead, she simply stated that if Jesus had been there, her brother would not have died. These are the only recorded words of Mary in the Gospels. Jesus’ reaction to Mary is not that of a philosopher or a teacher but of a friend. “Jesus wept.”

Later in the gospel we find Mary pouring expensive myrrh on Jesus feet and wiping them with her hair. Judas hypocritically protested that the myrrh could have been sold and the money given to the poor. He was a calculator, a philanthropist, a public relations manager, a thoroughly modern man, and Mary was none of these things. She was impractical. Her actions had no perceivable utility. Her life stands as a repudiation of all rational systems of ethics. “Do your duty!” says Kant. But Kant’s “categorical imperative” doesn’t work. We are still “anxious and troubled by many things.” But only one thing is necessary. We need redemption, the forgiveness of sin. And Mary, I think, understood that better than anyone else.