Mark 14:3–9 - interpreting the story through performance

The story of Jesus being anointed is part of the gospel reading in the lectionary for Palm Sunday. I told this story recently at the Methodist Church in Edinburgh.
What follows is the interpretation I discerned through gestures and emotion, bringing my whole person to the text as an embodied being, part of the wider body of Christ, in order to make meaning of this portion of our sacred inheritance.

I return to the story as I search for the words with which to compose a monologue for Jesus, imagining him reflecting on Palm Sunday, for our walking tour through the stories and Edinburgh's Old Town next week. I offer the reflection as a conversation partner for others approaching the stories of Holy Week. I am experimenting with how I want to shape such reflections on performance interpretations of biblical texts.

I have laid it out verse by verse, sometimes line by line, and made comments on the points at which gesture, expression, emotion and audience showed me something of what the text might mean. I would be interested to hear if this approach to making comment on the text is helpful, or in what ways it might be more so.

Audience: the audience for this performance was the city methodist church in Edinburgh, 2015; it was a worship service with a difference, the congregation being invited to experience worship in the sort of way the alternative church community, The Gathering, shape their worship. The Gathering is supported by the Methodist Church, and this experience of worshipping together was an act of community, of entering one anothers' stories, and building relationship.

The theme of the worship service was love. We chose this story as an example of the generous love shown by the woman in her anointing of Jesus; also, of the generous love Jesus shows to her in receiving her gift.

14:3 While he was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper,  
expression: I speak Simon the leper in a neutral tone, as you might say Simon the baker or Simon the dentist; it does not feel as though his being a leper is of particular note for this story. In the wider story, it is another example of Jesus associating with those considered under Jewish law as 'unclean'.

as he sat at the table, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment of nard, 
expression: I speak very costly slowly, with emphasis and eyes wide open in wonder, to draw attention to the extravagance of the act that will follow

and she broke open the jar and poured the ointment on his head.
gesture: broke open the jar - I hold my hands up high as if above the head of Jesus, sitting, as if holding a jar, make the action of breaking open, almost like breaking bread, though the reality is likely to be vastly different. again, this is an extravagant act, and the ointment is all poured out.
gesturepoured the ointment on his head - my hands make the action of ointment running down Jesus' head, slowly, with dripping honey in mind to try to convey a heavy, luxurious, and probably messy, moment.
emotion: as I embody this woman's generous, loving anointing of Jesus, I feel her love for him. It might have been an intimidating setting, requiring some courage, but I don't feel that she is aware of that: her love feels like a driving force, the desire to anoint his body for his coming burial almost overwhelming her to the point of not being able to see that this might meet with resistance. This is what I feel when I enact her story. Actually feeling these emotions, I will communicate them in my expressions and actions.  

14:4 But some were there who said to one another in anger, "Why was the ointment wasted in this way?
Emotion: the emotion is named, here: 'anger'. I find I need to pause before saying 'But some', and I linger on 'some', as I move from the emotion of  love I have been feeling in the woman and her actions, and make room to feel, and understand, the anger of the dinner guests. They feel indignant, confronted by her overt and intimate expression of love as much as by their lack of understanding. Their anger is a gut-reaction from people on the defensive. 

14:5 For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii, and the money given to the poor." And they scolded her.
Expression / gesture: I omit the words 'and they scolded her' in the telling, and instead have the speakers look at the woman as they say these words, bringing the narrator's description of their scolding into the words and actions of the scolders themselves. This may be because I seem to prefer to dissolve the narrator into the background in these telling events, and let myself as storyteller embody the characters as a way of inviting them to tell their own story.
Gesture: in the space where the narrator might have said 'and they scolded her', I have the speakers look at Jesus, as if to scold him as well, for not resisting, for not telling her off himself.  

14:6 But Jesus said, "Let her alone; why do you trouble her?  
Emotion: I find Jesus is not speaking in an angry or aggressive manner, but the emotion is concern for the woman. He feels a need to stand beside her in solidarity, bound in their mutual gift of love.
Expression : I do narrate 'But Jesus said', as this is a way of creating space in which I can move from the anger of the scolders to Jesus's gratitude and reciprocal love.

She has performed a good service for me.
Gesture: Jesus looks at the woman as he says this. 
Emotion: and he speaks with gratitude, as if the words are actually saying 'thank you.'  

14:7 For you always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish; but you will not always have me.
Gesture: Jesus looks around the table at the others.
Audience: I was aware of looking at the others at the table in a way that was not necessarily making my audience those dinner guests. I wanted to maintain the sense of distance between the audience and the guests, so that rather than telling the story in a way that says all of us church goers are just as bad because we all miss the point, I wanted the invitation to be, 'draw close' to the mutual generosity of love shared between Jesus and the woman.
Emotion: there is a sadness here, knowing that he is approaching his death; I also feel his disappointment in his friends, perhaps, that they do not understand, that they do not embody generous love, but dismiss it when they encounter it.  

14:8 She has done what she could; 
Gesture: Jesus is still looking at the others.
Expression: spoken with affirmation of this as a good act.

she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial.
Gesture: Jesus looks at the woman. It is a look of understanding and appreciation.
Emotion: he feels gratitude for her act of care and kindness; he feels sad, perhaps resigned, to the fact that he will die soon.  

14:9 Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her."
Gesture: I say this with Jesus looking at the woman the whole time. This expresses his affirmation of her, and I imagine this being a way that Jesus directs the gaze of all who are listening towards this woman, so that his words will become true, she will be seen and she will be remembered.
Audience: This is, therefore, a point at which the audience do stand alongside the other dinner guests, all invited to see, to understand, to remember.
Emotion: gratitude, and something between pride and delight - Jesus is pleased to think she will be remembered for this generous love he has received, they have witnessed; and it is spoken with love and gratitude returned to the woman, again recognising this as a moment of mutual giving of love.

My body and emotion have shown me in the preparation and performance of this story the way this moment is one of mutual giving and receiving of love and affirmation. The overall emotion is love, with a strong sense of gratitude on the part of Jesus. This shows me something quite profound about the humanity of Jesus, and his divinity: he receives love as a gift, is not a one-way fountain of love pouring out for humans who can give nothing back. So it tells me something about our humanity, too, that we respond to love with love, and that is affirmed and welcomed by God.

May the Spirit inspire and delight you in your engagements and encounters with this text as we enter Holy Week and journey towards the cross with Jesus once again.


Heather said…
I love the bit about the mutual giving and receiving of love.

The description of performance details was very clear.I would find it very useful if I were ever retelling this story.
sarah said…
Thank you Heather x
Glenys said…
I agree with Heather. The bit that struck me was the giving and receiving of love - and we are part of that. The details are clear. I love this story.

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