What Manner of Woman

A hush falls on the room, the men reclining around the food-laden table suddenly alert. All their stony gazes are pinned to the single object of their focus: The woman.

Her steps halting, she presses onward toward the single object of her focus: The Man. Efforts encumbered by her embarrassment, she reaches Him at last, falling wordlessly at His feet. The stench of her shame lingers while guests exchange unquietened murmurs. What is she doing? From the angle where she has thrown herself at the Man she seeks, what she does looks indecent at best, scandalous at worst; some guests turn suspecting looks on the Recipient of her affections. Then, like fragrant blossom blooming, a smell, cloying and desperate, that sharpens the air. The source is quickly identified and the men note with alarm the frankincense-colored oil, bleeding from a broken flask of alabaster, which now perfumes His feet.

The noise in the room resumes, as if all at once. Exclamations of objection; speculations of costs; disgust — or terror — stains the voices of each speaker.

Except for His.

She still has not said a word, despite the scorn which pours forth to crown her bowed head. The only sounds which come from her mouth are the cries, the sobs which, barely stifled, mingle tears with oil in sentimental emulsion. She has caught every slur, each deprecating, derogatory remark, with the ease that she has always caught them – expectantly, acceptingly, deservingly. And yet. And yet, her head remains bowed, tears flowing as freely as the oil which anoints his feet, as freely as the unbound hair which wipes the anointing, lips pressed fervently against the skin she now anoints. This is her desperate expression of love. None could ever lift her from where she lies prostrate at His feet to profess the inner cry of her heart’s desire.

“This Man,” the host mumbles to himself, “must not know what manner of woman this is who is touching Him, for she is a sinner.”[1]

The Man answers not her soundless musings but the host’s murmuring ones.  He tells a simple story and asks a simple question: One man is forgiven a small debt, and another, a greater debt – which loves the Forgiver more? Pensively, the answer arrives: The one forgiven most. Of course, He affirms, the one forgiven most would love more. It is rebuke to the host, but it is also affirmation to her–a dual response to her own emotional expression.

“Your sins are forgiven,” He tells her. “Your faith has saved you. Go in peace.”[2]

Having entered the room cloaked in shame, the weight of her past bowing her frame, she now leaves with a lightness. She is no longer Sinner, but Saved. She has been given a new identity.

Do we know who we are?

When Christ declared to Peter that He would build the church upon Himself, He began by addressing this core question of identity: “I also say to you that you are Peter.”[3] When John the Baptist was questioned as to whether he was the Christ, he stated plainly that he was rather the “voice of one crying in the wilderness”[4]; Elijah, when challenged, affirmed that he was indeed a ‘man of God’[5], having previously earned the reputation of ‘troubler of Israel’[6]; Daniel recorded of himself, as pronounced by human and celestial powers, that he was a man in whom was the Spirit of God[7], and ‘greatly beloved’[8]; and Jesus – Jesus, the Son of God, Immanuel – stood untremblingly, fearlessly before the bloodthirsty Jewish rulers and declared of Himself, “Before Abraham was, I AM.”[9]

What enabled these indomitable figures to stand firm in the face of the murderous Herod and Ahab, unwavering before the mandates of a despotic Nebuchadnezzar, able to weather the vitriol of the power-hungry religious leaders?

A deep, transformative knowledge of who they were.

The same must be for us: Before we can be called to our purposes or be tested in the final trying fire, we must first know who we are.

This fourth issue, Foundation, seeks to establish our identity, not solely in crisis but in character. Ultimately, understanding our identity in relation to our mission, education, and our message is essential to completing the work that God has given for us, His church, to accomplish.

In the unlikely figure of Mary Magdalene, we see the picture of Adventist character as laid out in Revelation 14 – in her earnest seeking of Christ, she demonstrates a willingness to follow Him wherever He goes[10]; by His words of forgiveness, she is declared faultless before the throne of God[11]; in the great risk she took to be present in the midst of the dinner party, she characterizes the faith of Jesus.[12] “What she has done will be told as a memorial of her,”[13] Jesus promises of the infamous anointing – the word of her testimony shared eternally as proof that the blood of the Lamb has made her whole.[14] 

It is a gloomy Sunday morning, the sun hardly daring to hope since its Maker’s lifeless body has been laid in the tomb. Anxious to be with Christ in life and death, Mary is horrified to find the waiting tomb opened and hollow. Alone, she stands in the yard softening the ground with her tears, until she offers two inquiring angels reason for her sorrow: “…they have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid Him.”[15] Vision blurred by her tears, she cannot see the face of the Man that she speaks to, repeating her desperation to be with her Lord: “…tell me where You have laid Him, and I will take Him away.”[16] 

Gently, softly, He speaks to her. “Mary,” He addresses her, and in those two syllables she recognizes her Lord and Savior. It is to her that He first appears after His sojourn in the tomb, to her that He first grants the privilege of declaring His victory over death. She knows who He is for she knows the voice of Jesus. He has called her by her name, her rightful identity in Him. She knows who He is and understands the depth of His love and grace by extension, secure in the knowledge of who she is in Him. In the firmness of identity – Saved – she has a purpose: To declare Him, His life, to the world again. In knowing Him, she has found herself – both identity and purpose.

What manner of woman indeed.

[1] Luke 7:39, paraphrased
[2] Luke 7:48, 50
[3] Matt. 16:18, emphasis supplied
[4] Matt. 3:3; Luke 3:4; John 1:23
[5] 2 Kgs. 1:10
[6] 1 Kgs. 18:17
[7] Dan. 5:11
[8] Dan. 10:11
[9] John 8:58
[10] Rev. 14:4
[11] Rev. 14:5
[12] Rev. 14:12
[13] Matt. 26:13, paraphrased
[14] Rev. 12:11
[15] John 20:13
[16] John 20:15

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