You can tell a lot about a person just by the state of his or her hair. You can tell how people are feeling, how they are feeling about themselves, whether they got up in time to do their hair the way they wanted, and more.
The Bible has a few things to say about hair. In ancient Israel, cutting the hair was a disgrace for both men and women. Hair is the crown and ornament of the head. The Song of Songs is a love letter of a poet to his beloved. In it, he praises the loose hair of his beloved in the highest terms, with an image that expresses dynamism, fullness, and wild power: “Your hair is like a flock of goats, moving down the slopes of Gilead” (Song 6:5)
The billy goat was called “the hairy” in Hebrew. It was a symbol of great vitality. So if anyone says your hair is like a flock of goats moving down the slopes, you should take that as a compliment.
Yet, there is destructive power in that kind of vitality, and people recognized it. Sometimes the vitality of someone’s hair led others astray and was referred to as the goat demon. The symbolism of the demonic also became associated with human hair. Hair could be a divine sign or a demonic symbol – long strong hair was (and is) symbolic of one’s life-force, eroticism, a figure of the untamable, and of protest.
One segment in the movie, Jason and the Argonauts, dealt with getting the head of Medusa. In Greek mythology, her hair was exaggerated and demonized in the form of snakes. If you looked upon her face and hair, it was so mesmerizing (symbolic of the destructive power of eroticism) that it turned people into stone.
Of course, by the time of Jesus, it must have been more commonplace for men to have short hair. Why else would the apostle Paul write in his letter to the Corinthians, that it is unnatural for a man to have long hair? (1 Cor. 11:3-16). Is it any wonder that the Beatles brought fear to the traditionalists and conformists in the 1960’s with their hairstyle?
A woman’s glory and honor was her long hair, properly wrapped around her head when she was in public. Letting the hair down was for personal and private matters. To the male leaders of society, however, the women’s loose hair in public symbolized that the women themselves were loose from social constraints or expectations. They weren’t playing by the rules. Rebellious behavior was grounds to accused of possession by a god or demon.
So with all this symbolism associated with hair, let’s look at the gospel story where Mary – in public – unwraps her hair, anoints Jesus’s feet, and wipes them dry with her hair. Is this something that we are supposed to do – literally? And if she took the time to bring her expensive offering, why didn’t she bring a towel…what can you really dry with your hair?
Stranger still, is the fact that Mary anoints his feet rather than his head.
Footwashing is a practice done in some churches during the season of Lent to mimic Jesus’s washing the disciples’ feet. It’s a very intimate act to allow someone to touch and wash your feet. It’s both humbling and an act of trust (they could tickle your feet). And it’s also a sign from the foot washer of humble service.
Mary was strong enough to not let the expectations of culture, society, or religious regulations prevent her from serving her Lord. She let her hair down and was her own person in the service of the Anointed One. She gave up the honor and glory of her hair as a decoration for her own head, and used it to serve her Lord. It didn’t matter what anyone else thought. And she gave up her possessions, costly perfume worth a year’s wages.
If called to do so, how would you imitate Mary today? Literally, you can grow your hair long enough and then donate it to Locks of Love, or the Childhood Leukemia Foundation, or another agency set up to make wigs for those undergoing chemotherapy for cancer. Sometimes, when someone is raising money for charity, they offer to have their hair shaved off as the prize for reaching the goal. These are acts of sacrifice and service for the sake of others.
If you don’t have hair to give in this literal way, drying someone’s feet with your hair suggests intimate acts of service given to others. You see, to “uncover someone’s feet” was a euphemism in biblical writings for uncovering their private parts. It’s like in the Old Testament when Ruth uncovered Boaz’s feet – you’ll have to go to the book of Ruth to find out what happened. You can’t write those kinds of details where children might be able to read them.
But we aren’t supposed to think Mary’s act was a sexual act – only a spiritual child would interpret it in an immature and worldly way. Spiritual maturity would interpret Mary’s act as a divinely inspired, sacred act of caring for her Lord.
It makes me think of people who are willing to take care of the personal needs of others – surgery doctors and nurses and technicians who deal with patients in their most vulnerable states; hospital, nursing home, hospice nurses or techs or aides who deal with people daily who cannot care for themselves; family members – parents, wives, husbands, siblings, children who care for a family member who cannot care for himself or herself.
It’s often those family members who give up a year’s wages in order to care for their loved one. And the fragrance of their offering fills the house. The love and beauty of this act of kindness and love is sacred and it’s apparent to everyone who enters that place.
So I think there are many things we can learn from Mary’s outrageous actions in this story. One of them is that you may be led to care for someone in intimate ways, and in doing so, you will be serving Christ.
Blessed are those who anoint the feet of Jesus.