WHEN blessed Mary wiped her Saviour’s feet,
(Whose precepts she had trampled on before)
And wore them for a jewel on her head,
Showing his steps should be the street,
Wherein she thenceforth evermore
With pensive humbleness would live and tread :
She being stained herself, why did she strive
To make him clean, who could not be defiled?
Why kept she not her tears for her own faults,
And not his feet? Though we could dive
In tears like seas, our sins are piled
Deeper than they, in words, and works, and thoughts.
Dear soul, she knew who did vouchsafe and deign
To bear her filth ; and that her sins did dash
Even God himself ; wherefore she was not loath,
As she had brought wherewith to stain,
So to bring in wherewith to wash :
And yet in washing one, she washed both.
Holy Week is almost upon us. We will meet Mary Magdalene on Good Friday, beside the Cross as Jesus dies and again, early on Sunday morning, when she comes to the tomb to anoint the body of her Lord and friend. It is Mary of Bethany, sister of Martha and Lazarus who tends to Jesus’ feet in John 12. The other woman, the sinful one, who appears in the other Gospels is not named and is not Mary Magdalene!
But let’s set aside that matter and ask what is going on in this poem. This ‘Mary’ is called ‘blessed’ – she is forgiven, and knows Jesus brought this about. Not that Simon the Pharisee was aware of the change in her; she was still a sinner in his estimation, so a woman to be avoided.
She knew that her sins were deep ‘in words, work and thought’ but she knew well that the Lord had set her relationship with him on the right path. Jesus had already, in earthly time, forgiven her. Now, in washing Jesus’ feet, making them briefly into hair ornaments as she wiped them, she also cleanses herself in a symbolic gesture of repentance, of her changed life, her forgiven life.
And of course, she and Mary of Bethany had the idea of symbolic foot washing before Jesus did it on Maundy Thursday.