In Western Christian tradition today goes by a number of names including Holy Wednesday and Good Wednesday. It can also be called Spy Wednesday because of certain events mentioned in the gospels. Unfortunately the Synoptic Gospels and John’s Gospel diverge considerably on the order and timing of the major events of Holy Week although they generally agree concerning the events themselves with some minor variations as to particulars.
According to Mark (12:3-10) on the Wednesday before his death Jesus was in Bethany in the evening:
3 While he was in Bethany, reclining at the table in the home of Simon the Leper, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, made of pure nard. She broke the jar and poured the perfume on his head. 4 Some of those present were saying indignantly to one another, “Why this waste of perfume? 5 It could have been sold for more than a year’s wages and the money given to the poor.” And they rebuked her harshly. 6 “Leave her alone,” said Jesus. “Why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. 7 The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want. But you will not always have me. 8 She did what she could. She poured perfume on my body beforehand to prepare for my burial. 9 Truly I tell you, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.”
10 Then Judas Iscariot, one of the Twelve, went to the chief priests to betray Jesus to them. 11 They were delighted to hear this and promised to give him money. So he watched for an opportunity to hand him over.
The chronology in John is very different. There the event happens before the triumphal entry on Palm Sunday, but in some Western liturgical traditions Mark’s chronology is accepted and gives us the name Spy Wednesday where “spy” means essentially “ambush” or “betrayal.” Two events are linked in Mark’s narrative – the anointing of Jesus and Judas’ decision to betray him – but in John the relationship is much clearer, and some added details have caused a lot of speculation.
In John it is Judas who complains about the waste of the perfume but he is accused of hypocrisy in that he didn’t want to help the poor but himself. Seeing the lost opportunity enrich himself he goes to the Sanhedrin seeking a bribe for betraying Jesus’ whereabouts. The general point is that Jesus preached openly in the daytime and generally infuriated the authorities with his message which was harshly critical of the status quo from which they all benefited. They wanted to get rid of him but were afraid to arrest him in broad daylight surrounded by a sympathetic mob. In the evenings, however, he seemingly vanished into thin air and no one, with the exception of his closest friends, knew where he went. To seize him in the evening one of his friends would have to turn on him. Judas obliged.
The woman who poured expensive perfume on Jesus is not given a name in Mark but is called Mary in John. Luke places this whole event at a different time in Jesus life, and characterizes the woman as a sinner. Putting these diverse details together leads a few commentators to declare not only that the woman, named Mary, was a sinner, but that she was none other than Mary Magdalene. This identification is extremely problematic. Mary Magdalene comes to the fore during and after the crucifixion, it is true. She is highly prominent, especially because she is said to be the first witness to the resurrection, and the first evangelist. She is mentioned in the gospels more than most of the apostles by name. Medieval scholars conflated her with the Mary who anointed Jesus, and taking the theme from Luke, suggests she was a reformed prostitute. These are completely unwarranted conclusions. There is not a shred of evidence from the gospels that Mary Magdalene was a reformed prostitute, nor that she was the Mary who anointed Jesus. Mary (Miriam) was a very common name.
Scholars are also deeply divided as to why Judas betrayed Jesus. The darker side of all of this, that is rarely raised, is that the Romans executed him, not the Sanhedrin, but the gospels all go out of their way to blame the Sanhedrin for starting the whole process. Hence in history one of the crimes laid at the door of Jews by Christians, fueling anti-Semitism, is that they (not the Romans) killed Jesus, and so must pay for their sins. That narrative works for the gospel writers because they, thus, avoid appearing anti-Roman at a time when being publicly anti-Roman got you killed. So, Judas betrays Jesus to the Sanhedrin, not to the Roman authorities. Judas was greedy and was looking for a bribe, so he sold out Jesus for 30 pieces of silver. What really happened?
Nothing really adds up here. Why would a trusted member of Jesus’ inner circle betray him at all. We could start with the idea that there were 12 apostles. Were there really? There were 12 tribes of Israel so there is some clear symbolism being promoted here. But “the twelve” are a bit of a shadowy lot. The gospels do not agree concerning the names of all of them for starters, and clearly some are more central than others. What do you remember about Thaddeus, for example, or Bartholomew? Judas Iscariot is identified as the treasurer of the group (or keeper of the purse). Otherwise there’s nothing to single him out prior to his betrayal.
One idea that springs off the top of my head is that there was a genuine inner circle – Peter, James, and John – and a lot of hangers on who came and went, some closer than others. Judas was one of these fringe elements who was intrigued by Jesus’ message but without a lot of conviction in it. There must have been a lot of this type – especially men. What is clear from the gospels, as well as Paul’s letters, is that the backbone of Jesus’ following were women, not men. This makes the scene of Jesus’ anointing at dinner all the more poignant. The guys just, more or less, sit around and do nothing while a woman makes a profound sacrifice of love and devotion (and one of the supposedly faithful men sneaks off and sells him down the river). This mirrors the general state of affairs in Judah (and the Roman empire) of the day, and is still the dominant posture of many Christian denominations. They lived in, and we live in, unabashedly patriarchal societies. Was one of the major problems that Jesus had with the powers that be – Jewish and Roman – that he had a very large female following in a culture dominated by men? Hard to say, but I suspect so.
Today’s putative events took place, as did so many of Jesus’ telling moments, at the meal table. I’ve talked quite a bit about the typical cuisine of ancient Judah, so you can pick from the many standard ingredients: lentils, olives, grapes, fish (of course), as well as eggs, flatbread and the like. Meat would not have been common, and, naturally, I’ll save lamb for Sunday. The ingredient that springs to mind for today is figs because of another minor (and inscrutable) event of Holy Week. On the way to the Temple one day Jesus is hungry but when he inspects a fig tree for fruit is has none (because it is not the right season). So he curses it, and on returning it has withered. What did the tree do wrong? Would you curse an apple tree in March because it bore no apples? About the best commentators can come up with is that Jesus was symbolically cursing people who are all talk (showy foliage) and no action (fruit). Maybe so, but figs are great – dried or fresh.
When they are in season I slice fresh figs and eat them on bread with sharp cheese. The combination is unbeatable. For a truly great sandwich place figs and cheese between slices of whole grain bread and grill the sandwich on both sides until the bread is nicely toasted and the cheese melted and gooey.