One of the things I love about a song like Come to Bethany is that it leaves people with questions. What’s Bethany? Why do I feel transported by this song? What does it even mean to sing those words?
Bringing a song to life is something of a mystery, but I think I can shed some light on its meaning.
It was a beautiful Southern California day in May. Hayden Lukas, Stephan Nosrat and I had just been thrown together at the very first Songwriter Initiative retreat. We were given a prompt—a bible story, any bible story—and three hours to write it. Go! I remembered a room I used for quiet study while getting my MA in Theology on that campus a decade before.
The walls were glass and the sun warmed us as we worked. Hayden started to finger pick a little riff. Stephan lifted a bow to his violin and a groundswell opened up in me. I closed my eyes and listened. And then the first words came.
“Have you ever loved someone so much that you would wash their feet with your tears?”
The question is far from random. It’s rooted in the story of a woman—likely a prostitute— who scandalized the inner circle of Jesus’ day by daring to approach him as he dined. She wept at his feet and wiped him clean with her tears, with her hair. She lavished Jesus’ feet with oil and continued to kiss them. The men were outraged but Jesus turned their contempt back on them. “I entered your house but you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet….therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love.” (Luke 7: 44-47)
We all leaned into the sound of those words but none of us couldn’t remember exactly which woman it was, which verse it was, and whether or not the woman who washed feet with tears was the same one who annointed Jesus’ head with oil. Stephan was on it. From his phone he read, “Six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany—” He likely kept reading but all I could hear now was the melody and an invitation, “Come to Bethany, come and be set free” and from there we knew we had the song. We would capture the spirit of a small town on the Eastern slopes of the Mount of Olives just outside Jerusalem. A town which we would soon “discover” was home to some of the most scandalous, life-giving, sentient, and wholly miraculous moments in all of the New Testament.
Just an ordinary town
Jesus made many visits to Bethany during his three year ministry. Early on he was invited to stay in the home of a woman named Martha, the sister of Lazarus and Mary of Bethany. Martha opens her home for Jesus to teach. Her sister Mary sits at his feet to listen. This is a radical departure from social norms. Women had no place sitting with men, learning alongside men. If Jesus were not present, one of the men would likely have shouted, “get in the kitchen where you belong!”
But Jesus’ response to Mary is even more radical: he welcomes her. And in this welcome he teaches that the old rules about who’s in and who’s out no longer apply.
The Raising of Lazarus
This is the defining miracle of Bethany, and the foreshadowing of Jesus’ death and resurrection. The story begins when Mary and Martha send a message to Jesus, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” They expected that he would drop everything and come running to heal him. But Jesus said, “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” (John 11: 4) As we see often in Scripture, Jesus is living into a story so epic in scope that even his closest followers could only understand his meaning in retrospect.
Two days later Jesus announces, “Lazarus is dead. For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.”
(A curious sidenote here: Thomas—most famously known as doubting Thomas because he wants proof of everything—has already set his eyes on Bethany and the promise of a life that conquers death. “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” John 11: 14-16)
When they arrive in Bethany, Lazarus has already been in the tomb for four days. Martha goes out to meet Jesus on the road. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.”
Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”(John 11: 21-26)
There is yet another extraordinary moment in this narrative. When Jesus sees Mary and many others weeping over the death of Lazarus, “Jesus began to weep.” This is the only instance in all of Scripture where we see Jesus crying—not over Lazarus—whom he knows he will raise— but over the pain and suffering of the mourners.
“Jesus’ tears transformed Mary’s view of her Lord. Soaking the hardened ground of Bethany, Jesus’ tears commingled with hers.” —Makoto Fujimura
The raising of Lazarus is considered the tipping point that leads to his execution. He’s gotten too big. His wisdom and power are too great; supernatural even. Orders are given for Jesus’ capture. He never tries to hide. Rather, from Bethany he mounts not a high horse but a lowly colt and enters the city in full view. All around him people cry Hosanna! and wave “leafy branches,” symbolizing victory and celebration. This would mark the first day of what we call Holy Week: Palm Sunday.
Jesus would come and go from Bethany throughout the week, offering his disciples some of his most prophetic teachings: cursing the fig tree for bearing no fruit (symbolic of a Judaism that was no longer producing spiritual fruit in its people) and overturning the vendor’s tables in the temple shouting, “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations. But you have made it a den of thieves.” (Mark 11: 12-25)
There would be a dinner in Bethany that week, as well—in one account, at the home of Lazarus; in this account, at the home of Simon the Leper, yet another marginalized person with whom Jesus spent his final days.
“A woman came to him with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment, and she poured it on his head as he sat at the table. But when the disciples saw it, they were angry and said, “Why this waste? For this ointment could have been sold for a large sum, and the money given to the poor.” But Jesus, aware of this, said to them, “Why do you trouble the woman? She has performed a good service for me. For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me.
By pouring this ointment on the body she has prepared me for burial. Truly I tell you, wherever this good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.”Matthew 26: 7-13
Every time we sing “the love of Christ, a sweet perfume” in the bridge of Come to Bethany, we remember her.
The last farewell
The Books of Luke-Acts are replete with stories of Jesus’ 40-day return after his resurrection. He connects with disciples and new believers. He reassures them, guides them, empowers them and offers these final words in this singular place: “He led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven.” (Luke 24:50-52)
Bethany is the last place that Jesus was ever seen on Earth.
Come to Bethany
In Proverbs 9, Wisdom (who is personified as a female character) calls out from the highest places in the town, “Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed. Lay aside immaturity, and live, and walk in the way of insight.”
Jesus embodies this Wisdom teaching when he says, “Come to me, all you who are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”
In these closing words in Revelation, Jesus ties all the pieces together in one glorious invitation:
The Spirit and the bride say, “Come,” And let everyone who hears say, “Come.” And let everyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.Revelation 22: 17
None of us had these readings and references in our mind when we went into that glass room, but I’ve come to suspect that the Spirit of God had a hand in bringing us together. Because the other thing we all agreed on instantly was that we needed to start the song from a place of modern day suffering. That the promise of a life full of blessing and the “aroma of Christ” means the most to those who feel the farthest from it. Maybe this is why Jesus issues his signature invitation—come to me—to weary souls like us. Maybe this is why we were led to end the chorus with this suggestion: How ’bout we all go to Bethany.
ARTWORK: Mary of Bethany by Daniel F. Gerhartz, Resurrection of Lazarus by Sergey Guz, Emmaus by Helge Boe, A Woman Annoints Jesus, artist unknown.
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