Fun Facts of Lent, Day Twenty: The Woman with the Alabaster Jar

“Wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.”

There aren’t many stories about Jesus that are told in all four gospels. Depending on how you count, between 12 and 24 passages overlap. The woman with the alabaster jar is one of the few that is in all four gospels (though in John’s gospel he attributes the act to Mary rather than an unnamed sinner). The story is simple: in the days before his death, a woman comes up to Jesus with a jar of expensive ointment and anoints him with it. Sometimes it’s his head, sometimes his feet. Sometimes she washes his feet with her hair as well. Whatever the specifics, she takes something of high value (the expensive ointment) and uses it to care for Jesus. And in every story, the disciples just don’t get it.

portrait-of-the-woman-with-the-alabaster-jarSometimes they think he shouldn’t be fraternizing with sinners, sometimes they think it’s a waste to spend the ointment on Jesus when it could have been sold and the money donated. But in every case Jesus rebukes them, explaining that she has done a good thing for him. This thing is so good, in fact, that Jesus says that she will be remembered throughout the world by all who honor Jesus and his ministry.

This is why you’ve definitely heard of her, right?

This is why her feast day is such a big deal, and why churches build up traditions around how they’ll celebrate Jar Day, right?

This is why little girls will dress as her and carry jars around the church, right?

No. Of course not. None of this has happened. The most we seem to celebrate the woman with the alabaster jar is when we lump her together with Mary Magdalene, despite the majority of the gospels defining her as a different person. While this may be a nice way to flesh out Mary’s character, it means we’ve completely eliminated a woman from the gospel story. And not just any woman. We took away the woman Jesus told us very specifically and on no uncertain terms to honor every where we share his ministry. Why have we forgotten her? Because she doesn’t have a name? The wise men don’t have names in the Bible and we managed to not only give them names but celebrate them every year. We even named a church season after them (Epiphany), despite the fact that they only appear in one of the four gospels.

There are so many amazing women who have been written out of history. Somehow we manage to write them out of the Bible, even when we keep the text.

One thought on “Fun Facts of Lent, Day Twenty: The Woman with the Alabaster Jar

  1. This was the Gospel reading for one of my rare sermons a while back. I framed it as Jesus trying to get the disciples to ‘be here now’. He knew he wasn’t going to be with them much longer (though the poor would) and the woman was recognizing and honoring that through her very precious act. I am moved by the version where she wipes his feet with her hair…serious Biblical intimacy there!

    Thanks for your focus on the woman and the fact that she is practically ignored, historically, in this story. Unlike the others in the room, she got it. Dare I say, women are simply more perceptive than men!

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