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A discipleship of love :
Mary of Bethany and the ministry of women

by Tina Beattie
published in The Month, May 1997, pp171-175.

A theologian examines the account in John’s Gospel of Christ washing the disciples’ feet through a lens which seeks to focus on an image of women's ministry.

Women have always exercised a wide variety of ministries in the church, teaching and preaching, leading religious communities, campaigning for social justice, caring for the sick and the poor, attending to the many tasks of parish life, and today serving as eucharistic ministers and sometimes leading communion services. It is therefore important to bear in mind that the ordained priesthood is only one of many forms of ministry, all of which rnust work in harmonious interaction if the church is to fulfil her vocation of love to the world. Very few of these ministries explicitly exclude women.

In this article, however, I want to consider the washing of feet as the most complete symbol of ministry, and one that has long been associated with the ministry of the sacramental priesthood. I believe that a careful reading of the footwashing narrative in John’s Gospel leads to a new understanding of ministry, including women’s ministry, that we have yet to discover and incorporate into our vision of what it means to exercise the priestly ministry of Christ.

It has often been pointed out that Christ did not ordain anyone as priest, and the idea of the sacramental priesthood (as opposed to the priesthood of all believers) developed in the post-biblical era. Only with hindsight, therefore, does Christ’s washing of the disciples’ feet in John’s Gospel take on priestly significance, as church doctrine and practice provide the lens through which the Scriptures are read and interpreted. Today, the question of women in the church has changed the focus of that lens and allowed us to view the Bible from a different angle. What happens, then, if we look at the significance of the washing of feet through a lens which seeks to focus on an image of women’s ministry.

Symbolic actions

John’s Gospel describes two footwashing scenes in the days before Christ’s death. In John 12:1-8, Mary, sister of Martha and Lazarus lavishly anoints Jesus’ feet with perfume, and wipes his feet with her hair. In John 13: 1-16. Jesus washes the disciples’ feet and wipes them with the towel he has tied round his waist. The symbolic meaning of Christ’s footwashing provides an ongoing source of discussion among biblical scholars. Some see eucharistic significance in the event, arguing that it symbolises Jesus’ action over the bread and wine described in the Synoptic Gospels.

In what follows. I want to explore ways in which the writer of John’s Gospel seems to indicate a relationship between Mary’s action and that of Christ, although this theme is not always developed in works of biblical criticism. I am not a biblical scholar, and what follows is, therefore, an amateur attempt to liberate the Gospel narrative, to let it breathe new meaning and vision into our understanding of ministry, and to open our eyes to particular gifts, and qualities that women might bring to the priestly role. But perhaps inso far as the word ‘amateur’ has as its root the Latin amator,meaning lover, we should all approach the biblical text as amateurs, as lovers, prior to any scholarly expertise.

Matthew and Mark describe Jesus’ anointing by a woman at a meal, but in their accounts the unnamed woman anoints Jesus’ head (cf. Matt 26:6-13: Mk14:3-9). Luke has the woman anointing Jesus’ feet, but the location of his story is different from John’s, the event takes place in the house of a pharisee), and Luke stresses the woman’s bad reputation. She is a penitent sinner whose sins are forgiven by Jesus (cf. Lk 7:36-50); Luke later describes Jesus’ meal at Martha’s house, where Martha waits on table and Mary sits at his feet (cf. Lk 10:38-42).

John, however, possibly conflates these two occasions. It is Mary of Bethany who anoints Jesus’ feet while he is at supper in the company of Lazarus and others, and Martha waits on table. John introduces the anointing of Jesus’ feet and the washing of the disciples’ feet with a reference to the approaching Passover and he explicitly relates these two events to Jesus’ death (cf. Jn 12:7 and 33:1). On both occasions Judas is identified as a source of disruption and treachery. Given that John’s is the latest and most theologically developed of the Gospels, might there be significance in all this?

Immediately preceding Mary’s anointing of Jesus, John describes the raising of Lazarus, and he clearly intends that we should make a connection between the two occasions, pointing out that :

It was the same Mary, the sister of the sick man Lazarus, who anointed the Lord with ointment and wiped his feet with her hair. (Jn 11:2).

The story of Lazarus is a wonderful vignette of the nature of the friendship between Jesus and the sisters, Martha and Mary, leaving us in no doubt about the mutual affection that marked their relationship. John tells us that “Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus” (Jn 11:5). In the grief and darkness to come this special love provides a contrast to the incomprehension, betrayal and abandonment of Jesus by his other disciples. Some feminist scholars have pointed out that while Luke attributes the recognition of Christ’s messianic mission to Peter, (cf. Lk 9:18-21) John in this text attributes it to Martha (cf. Jn: 11:27).

There are then, several interweaving themes that relate to women’s ministry in these passages, but in what follows I concentrate on the relationship between Mary’s action and Christ’s in the washing of feet. In particular I want to suggest that Mary performs a prophetic gesture, an example which Jesus emulates as the perfect expression of the mutual love between himself and his faithful disciples. He tells his disciples, “I have given you an example so that you may copy what I have done to you” (Jn 13:15) but implicit in this is the inference that Mary provides the model of discipleship, for is not Jesus himself copying what she did to him?

Then, as now, perhaps the men who followed Jesus were blind to the significance of women’s apostolate. In order for Mary of Bethany to be taken seriously, Christ had to repeat her gesture, to draw attention to it, to explain explicitly that this is the true meaning of loving discipleship


It is interesting to contrast Mary’s intuitive extravagance with Peter’s incomprehension at the Last Supper. Between Mary and Jesus, there is a mutual and unspoken understanding of the meaning of her action. When Lazarus died, Mary flung herself at Jesus’ feet and wept, and Martha fretted about the stench of the tomb. Now, with profound insight Mary gathers up and reinterprets the significance of those moments, kneeling at Jesus’ feet and filling the house with the scent of his anointing. Where the burial of Lazarus suggests misery, decay and corruption, Mary pours out upon Christ the fragrant promise of love, resurrection and new life, and Jesus explains to a scornful Judas the meaning of what she has done. “Leave her alone; she had to keep this scent for the day of my burial.” (Jn 12:7).

There is also a lavish sensuality to Mary’s action. Matthew, Mark and Luke’s description of the unnamed woman as a sinner might indicate how the male disciples felt when confronted by the loving embodiment of women’s discipleship. Perhaps they were shocked that she appeared in the company of men with her hair loose, in defiance of social convention. (Paul’s instruction in 1 Corinthians 11:5-15 that women should wear veils as a sign of respect in worship indicates how quickly the Christian community lost sight of the loving spontaneity of Mary’s discipleship.)

In John’s Gospel there is no suggestion that Mary is a sinner or a prostitute. Woman’s sexual embodiment is not associated with sin, as is so often the case in Christian writings, but with loving discipleship that is not afraid to express itself as touch and caress. Thomas Aquinas (1) suggests that one argument against women teaching publicly in church is “lest men’s sexual desires be aroused”. To what extent might the resistance to women’s ordination still mask men’s inability to deal with their sexuality, and to relate to women in loving relationships? Between Mary and Jesus, we see an expression of love that celebrates rather than denies the expressive power of the body, a sensual sharing of affection that implies mutual respect rather than exploitation and lust.

Mary intuitively knows what is required to mark the significance of Christ’s last Passover. Not so Peter, whose first concern is for propriety and hierarchy. Jesus comes to him in the role of a servant, and Peter is outraged, “You shall never wash my feet” (Jn 13:8). Then, when Jesus says, “If I do not wash you, you can have nothing in common with me”, (Jn 13:8) Peter goes to the opposite extreme and wants Jesus to wash his hands and his head as well. He dreads loss of status in relation to Christ. In his preoccupation with outward appearances, he fails to recognise that an inner transformation is required. We know the events of that night, and we know the disgrace and humiliation that will at last bring Peter to a true understanding of discipleship. Peter’s desire for approval and public esteem will ultimately lead to his denial of Christ, and only through that experience of abjection will he discover life in common with Christ.

Peter has followed Jesus throughout his public ministry. He knows that this is the one who has come to subvert the social order, to make the first last and the last first, to exalt the lowly and cast down the mighty. He has seen Jesus touch the outcast and the leper, commune with women and bless their children, ridicule the self-righteous and make merry with sinners. All this Peter has witnessed, but still, he does not understand. In Peter’s world, masters must be masters and servants must remain so.

Yet the world that Christ is about to initiate through his death and resurrection will liberate his followers from the bondage of worldly hierarchies. Jesus does not just reverse the social order, nor is this a Marxist vision where workers triumph over the ruling classes. How often in history have revolutions and liberation movements turned into new tyrannies where the oppressed become oppressors and the vicious cycle domination and exploitation continues unchanged, because one hierarchy has simply replaced another?

Perfect discipleship

Jesus poses a more fundamental challenge to our understanding of human relationships:

You call me Master and Lord, and rightly; so I am. If I, then, the Lord and Master have washed your feet, you should wash each other’s feet (Jn 13:13-14).

This is the nature of ‘lordship’, the nature of ‘mastery’ in the Christian community. Political correctness, like every ideology, is repressive because in forbidding certain forms of expression and advocating others it seeks to change human behaviour through the manipulation of language. Among the followers of Jesus, our understanding of language is changed through the way we behave. The word ‘master’ is not forbidden but transformed. To be master and Lord is to serve, to wash the feet of those who seek to serve us. But the writer of John’s Gospel suggests an even more subversive dimension to the story of the Last Supper — because it is a woman who provides the example of perfect discipleship. What Jesus does for his disciples, a woman has already done for him. John makes her act of loving friendship intrinsic to the drama of the Last Supper, so that she participates intimately in the eucharistic significance of that occasion.

Was Mary present when Jesus washed his disciples’ feet? Did he wash her feet that night, as she had anointed his feet a few nights earlier? We are so often told that there were no women present at the Last Supper, and some bishops still insist that women cannot participate in the footwashing on Holy Thursday. John’s Gospel does not explicitly mention women, but their presence seems implicit in the narrative. In the story of the raising of Lazarus, John tells us of Jesus’ love for Martha, Mary and Lazarus. At the beginning of the account of the Last Supper, he says that Jesus “had always loved those who were his in the world, but now he showed how perfect his love was” (Jn 13:1). A little later he says that “The disciple Jesus loved was reclining next to Jesus” (Jn 13:23).

The identity of this beloved disciple perplexes biblical scholars: is ‘he’ symbolic of the ideal disciple, or a historical figure?(2) However, apart from Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza’s tentative suggestion that the beloved disciple might be Martha,(3) the idea that this person is one of Jesus’ women followers, or indeed several women who symbolically represent ideal discipleship, receives little attention. Yet the description of Mary of Bethany in John 12 fulfils the criteria that scholars attribute to the beloved disciple. Given John’s emphasis on Jesus’ love for Martha, Mary and Lazarus, it is hard to believe that the sisters would have been excluded from the final gathering of Jesus with his friends and followers. If the washing of feet was a sign of Jesus’ perfect love for those who were his in the world, it would surely include the two women whom John explicitly tells us were specially loved by him.

Raymond Brown points to the prominence of women in the Johannine community.(4) Fiorenza suggests that although Luke’s Gospel also appears to accord equal significance to women, in fact he is subtly undermining women’s equality. She argues that Luke’s description of Mary sitting at Jesus’ feet while Martha waits on table, is a post-resurrection account of a eucharistic meal.(5) Martha’s service is described as diakonia, a word which referred to serving at the eucharistic meal in the early church. Martha is portrayed as active and outspoken, while Mary is passive and silent in Luke’s account. Jesus rebukes Martha and endorses Mary’s role (cf. Lk 10:41-2). Fiorenza suggests that Luke is holding Mary up as an example to women. They should not be like Martha, serving at the eucharistic table, but like Mary, learning in silent submission.

If Fiorenza’s interpretation is correct then John’s Gospel suggests the opposite situation, and perhaps these are two descriptions of the same meal at Bethany. Martha waits on table and Mary anoints Christ’s feet in a way which prefigures his priestly example. Both women perform eucharistic roles, and John seems to be at pains to ensure that we make such connections, that we understand Mary’s anointing Jesus in terms of the Passover and his death an resurrection.

Mutual service

The stories of the anointing of Jesus’ feet and the washing of the disciples’ feet illuminate one another. Peter must learn through bitter personal experience the true nature of discipleship, which is concerned not with worldly hierarchy and status but with loving relationships of mutual service to one another. In the encyclical Redemptoris Mater, John Paul II writes:(6)

In the light of Mary, the Church sees in the face of woman the reflection of a beauty which mirrors the loftiest sentiments of which the human heart is capable: the self-offering totality of love; the strength that is capable of bearing the greatest sorrows; limitless fidelity and tireless devotion to work: the ability to combine penetrating intuition with words of support and encouragement.

The Pope is referring to the Virgin Mary, but these words might equally be applied to Mary of Bethany. In the anointing of Jesus’ feet, she manifests all these qualities, but surely the example she provides is not that of perfect womanhood but of perfect discipleship? Mary’s intuitive and generous outpouring of love is juxtaposed in John’s Gospel against Peter’s inappropriate concern for the status quo, his desire to protect hierarchical relationships of dominance and servitude, his exaggerated display of commitment to Christ which masks his failure to understand the true meaning of discipleship. Peter’s concern is not for Christ but for himself. Mary, on the other hand, manifests a forgetting of self and profound sensitivity to another. She makes connections and has an awareness of the hidden meanings in the events around her. Sensing the darkness to come, she reaches out to Christ and wordlessly demonstrates her compassion and her understanding.

Some psychological studies suggest that women’s privilege relationality and care over autonomy are individualism, while for men it is the other way round. Maybe we see echoes of such patterns of behaviour in the contrast between Mary of Bethany and Peter in John’s Gospel. To say this is not to make Peter’s role redundant, but to suggest that without Mary’s example, Peter’s discipleship lacks certain essential human qualities. Human institutions need structures of authority and some form of hierarchy but without the compensating qualities of relationship and care, they risk becoming excessively authoritarian and hierarchical.

Perhaps the future flourishing of the church requires an act of repentance and remembrance of a woman’s anointing of Christ. So often, the Catholic hierarchy behaves like Peter at the Last Supper, and forgets the woman whose example Christ imitates in order to teach his followers the nature of discipleship. If the washing of feet is a symbol of priesthood, then maybe Christ is inviting us to consider again the example of Mary of Bethany, his beloved disciple and friend


1. St ThomasAquinas, Summa Theologiae — AConcise Translation, ed. Timothy McDermott, Ilallae, 177-2. London: Methuen, 1992, p.450

2. For a discussion of these possibilities, see Oscar Cultmann,The Johannine Circle, London: SCM Press Ltd., 1975, pp.71-85.

3. Cf. Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, In Memory of Her — A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins: London: SCM Press, 2nd ed., 1994, p.330.

4. Cf. Raymond E, Brown, The Community of the Beloved Disciple, Appendix II, ’Roles of Women in the Fourth Gospel’, London; Geoffrey Chapman, 1979, pp. 183-98

5. Cf. Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, But She SaidFeminist Practices of Biblical Interpretation, Boston Beacon Press,1992, pp.52-76.

6. John Paul II, ReJemptoris Mater Encyclical Letter of the Supreme Pontiff John Paul II on the Blessed Virgin Mary in the Life of the Pilgrim Church, London: Catholic Truth Society, 1987, p.l0l.

7. Cf. Chodorow, Nancy, The Reproduction of Mothering: Psychoanalysis and the Sociology of Gender, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978, and Carol Gilligan, In a Different Voice — Psychological Theory and Women’s Development, Cambridge MA and London: Harvard University Press, 2nd ed., 1993.

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