When Mary reached the place where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” John 11.32.
We first encounter Mary of Bethany in the gospels about six months before the occasion being described in this morning’s reading. There we learn that Martha, Mary’s sister, had opened their home, just outside Jerusalem, to Jesus and his disciples. That was a lot of mouths to feed, so Martha went to work in the kitchen and expected her sister to join her, but instead Mary “sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said” (Luke 10.39). To sit at the feet of a rabbi was to be his disciple, just as Paul was once sat “at the feet of Gamaliel” (Acts 22.3, literal translation) — one of the great rabbis in Jerusalem — and learned from him the law. So Mary had joined with the Twelve and left her sister to cook alone. It won her a rebuke from Martha but a commendation from Jesus himself: “Martha, Martha, you are worried and upset about many things … only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her” (Luke 10.42).
Now, six months later, something has “been taken away from her” — her brother Lazarus. He had fallen ill and they had sent for Jesus, but Jesus hadn’t come and Lazarus had died. Only now has Jesus arrived, and now is too late. But still, unlike her sister Martha, Mary falls at Jesus feet. If to sit at his feet made Mary a disciple, falling at his feet makes her a worshipper. It is an act of reverence. In the Acts of the Apostles, as Peter entered the house where Cornelius was, “Cornelius met him and fell at his feet in reverence. But Peter made him get up. ‘Stand up,’ he said, ‘I am only a man myself.'” (Acts 10.25-26). But Jesus is not “only a man” to Mary. He is “Lord”, and, as Mary makes plain, if he had been there earlier Lazarus would not have died. Mary knows that Jesus can heal; now she is about to learn that he can raise the dead.
Which leads me to the third appearance of Mary in the gospels, in the very next chapter. “Six days before the Passover, Jesus arrived at Bethany, where Lazarus lived, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. Here a dinner was given in Jesus’ honour. Martha served, while Lazarus was among those reclining at the table with him. Then Mary took about a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. (John 12.1-3).
Again Martha is busy with her domestic duties and again Mary is at the feet of Jesus; but this time it is not just as disciple or even as worshipper but as lover. The pouring out of the nard over the feet of Jesus is a pouring out of Mary herself in extravagant love and costly devotion. To let down your hair in public was taboo in those days. A woman must let down her hair only for her husband. Letting down your hair was an act of self-giving, self-surrender.
At the feet of Jesus: it was where Mary of Bethany was always to be found. Learning, worshipping, loving. May that be true of me too, today and every day.