It was two days before Passover when Jesus became explicit with his followers. He had just finished a lecture to the crowd, the kind of talk a person gives when he knows there may not be any other opportunities, a talk full of last-minute reminders such as a person might give to the babysitter on the way out the door, the sort of instructions that mean the difference between eternal life and unremitting death.
There was urgency in his voice and in his message as he told the stories of the good and faithful servant, of the separating of the sheep and the goats. He hurried to be as clear as possible in his storytelling way.
And then it was time for dinner, time to collapse at the end of the day, to leave the crowds behind and gather with his friends around the table. This Jesus who so treasured his time away came to the end of his ministry surrounded by inescapable crowds, teaching non-stop with no time to simply retreat.
They must have had more questions for him. The disciples always did. Teacher, we didn’t quite get that story’s meaning? Who exactly are the sheep? It’s us, right?
While they continued to thrive on the excitement and danger of the day, a woman came to the table, a woman whose name we do not know according to Matthew’s gospel. She came to the table with a jar of perfumed oil, and she poured it on his head. It was the sort of perfumed oil handed down from mother to daughter over many generations, a family heirloom, and the only way to open the jar was to break it.
She poured out the whole jar, since there was no way to put a stopper in it or save it to use another day. She poured out the whole jar, because she somehow knew that Jesus needed it.
At that next-to-last supper, the room filled with the fragrance of the perfumed oil, intoxicating, overwhelming, lavish and unrepentant. You could not put it back in the jar, this display of love.
Jesus tells the disciples that she has done him a good service. She has prepared his body for burial, he tells them, and we don’t hear that they say anything else to him. How could they? They needed to pause and take in what he had said, to try and understand what he meant. They still did not understand.
And do we? It can be hard to hold onto the whole story. There are too many parts that makes us cringe and want to turn away. Judas would turn to earthly powers. Peter would draw a sword and later deny even knowing Jesus.
We don’t know this woman’s name. We don’t know if she followed the group with Jesus into Jerusalem, or if she stood at the cross. We only know she gave her all in that act of care and honor and devotion to the one who devoted himself to all of us.
"Wherever this good news is proclaimed in the whole world," said Jesus, "what she has done will be told in remembrance of her."
We all know people, women and men, who pour themselves out for others in the name of Christ. Most of them would rather we didn’t acknowledge or remember them. So it is perhaps not surprising that her story is hidden away in Holy Week, never to be heard on a Sunday except in its more embroidered version, where the house belongs to Lazarus and the perfume belongs to Mary and is poured onto Jesus’ feet.
A woman who we do not know, a woman without a name, stood behind Jesus and broke a jar and poured out the riches of her life on his head. She anointed him as king and prepared him for burial in the same act. She showed the love that others feared to show, at that next-to-last supper.