by Karen McClain Kiefer
Each month Blogos features an article created in partnership with the Logos Institute’s Logia initiative. This month’s Logia post is by Karen McClain Kiefer. More information about Logia and additional articles are available here.
More than anything, a call to living a more meaningful life influenced my decision to make a transition from my previous corporate and consulting careers. But if asked to identify a particular inspiration that prompted me to turn toward theology and biblical studies and ultimately pursue a postgraduate divinity degree, I have one definitive response: Mary of Bethany and her extravagant anointing act from the Gospel of John (12:1-7).
This one woman and her gesture innocuously blew open the door to a new world for me. Like most church-going Christians, I had heard this anointing passage dozens of times. But then I read a reflection on it by a pastor I knew in Sedona, Arizona, who was also my first guide to the Holy Land in 2008. I still have the book – John’s Rabbi by Paul Wallace. I read the familiar passage, in which Jesus visited the home of Lazarus, Mary and Martha, and Mary poured precious perfumed nard on Jesus’ feet, wiped them with her hair and the fragrance of the nard filled the house. As I was imagining the scent wafting up through the home, I read a stunning comment further connecting this anointing event with Jesus’ imminent final entry to Jerusalem where he would be crucified six days later. The proximity of these two events prompted a ponderance by Wallace that, because of the purpose of nard for burial, the fragrance, powerful enough to fill a house, might have lingered throughout the rest of that week – on Jesus. . . all the way to Golgotha. This notion left my mouth gaping and forever changed the way I thought of Mary and her anointing act. I realized then that the fragrance might also have lingered on her, inimitably linking the two of them during his triumphal entry and passion. The image of the two being connected by the fragrance from her extravagant gesture has never left me and, like the perfume, has wafted into my thoughts, imagination, study and conversations, as well as into other areas of interest.
It awakened a part of me that longed to journey with Jesus during his ministry and his passion – at least through those I could relate to in the Gospel narratives. I needed to encounter Jesus through a woman’s lens. But I had not been exposed to many, other than the figure of Mary Magdalene who will seemingly forever be unjustly mired in a prostitute’s web woven by a sixth-century pope. And so I kept reading – this narrative and others – seeking to know more about the women in the Gospels who encountered Jesus. And while I realized the richness awaiting anyone wishing to dive into these texts, I also began to discover a prevailing, underlying, unnerving theology of women in their portrayal in some church teachings and preachings, which I would later call a ‘theology of the harlot’.
I was encouraged by Jesus’ encounter with women but disappointed in the ways they have been portrayed or ignored throughout history. I fell in love with Jesus’ response (also in the Johannine anointing narrative) to the man (Judas) who chastised Mary for her ‘wasteful’ act. “Leave her alone,” Jesus said. He acclaimed her act and stood up for her to a man in authority. Oh, how I had longed to hear that admonition in my own defense as I had navigated leadership roles in an androcentric corporate and ecclesial world – one in which many of my ideas were only recognized when proclaimed by a man well after I had first suggested them. But Jesus not only recognized what Mary was doing and intimating through her gesture, he acclaimed her for it, announced it to all present, and defended her from attack.
My inroads with Mary of Bethany and my encounter with other biblical narratives gave me reassurance that I very much had a role to play in the church – a role to give women in these narratives a voice, to liberate their stories, and in so doing perhaps liberate the voices of women in the current church. This was the focus of my master’s degree. I enrolled as an enthusiastic Johannine student, and emerged as a reluctant feminist theologian.
As a Roman Catholic, I had few female role models in positions of leadership, other than medieval saints who lived lives very different than mine, and Mother Teresa, with whose Missionaries of Charity I was already working. I had been normalized to this sometimes female-unfriendly culture in many ways. However, one day near the end of my master’s program, I was confronted with why it was important for me to continue as I crossed the threshold of the sacristy before Mass. I was the lector and was going to retrieve the lectionary from its usual place. At this Mass a new organ made by local monks was going to be blessed by the bishop and they were all gathered in the sacristy – all male, even the altar servers. As I crossed the threshold, I was met with stares from 8 males whose conversation ended abruptly as I entered. I stopped, startled at the sight. The bishop, a kind and good man, said, ‘You must be the lector.’ Without thinking or missing a beat, I said, ‘I must be.’ The pastor pointed toward the doorway I had just entered through, and said, ‘Everything is already set up,’ which I knew really meant, ‘You do not belong here.’ But I knew that I did. And so I persisted. I left the sacristy but pursued further study.
That study has led me here to the Institute for Theology, Imagination and the Arts at the University of St Andrews where I am researching theological, cosmological and theatrical notions of empty space. As a ‘mature’ postgraduate student, I have quite a bit of lived experience, some which has taken me to the brink of utter desperation at times and to my knees, or lower, frequently. Through many difficult transitions in my life I have come know a profound emptiness that we humans naturally resist. Mystics like John of the Cross and Thérèse of Lisieux encourage us to enter into it, into the depths where that abyss meets the deep abyss of God’s love and mercy. Encountering that love and mercy has also helped me find meaning that first prompted my call to theological and biblical study… and first introduced me to a woman named Mary.
Karen McClain Kiefer is a PhD student in the Institute for Theology, Imagination and the Arts studying theological, cosmological and theatrical notions of empty space.
 The first documented account of Mary Magdalene being considered a prostitute is from a sermon in 591 (Sermon 33) by Pope Gregory I (Gregory the Great) in which he stated that the unnamed repentant sinner in Luke 7 who anointed Jesus’ feet was Mary Magdalene, and that the ointment had previously been used by her “to perfume her flesh in forbidden acts” (“Liquet…quod illicitus actibus prius mulier intenta unguentum sibi pro odore suæ carnis adhibuit”).