02 April. Monday in Holy Week
Isaiah 42:1ff. My servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, the One in whom my soul delights.
John 12:1ff. Mary of Bethany shows her love, pouring ointment on Jesus’ feet.
A Matter of Life and Death
Today’s story of a tender, loving gesture done for Jesus by his close friend Mary, the sister of Lazarus and of Martha, is both meaningful and inspirational and at the same time puzzling, from one perspective. Mary may not yet have seen Jesus in the full light of prophecy, as “a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness” (1st Reading), or indeed as the world’s only Saviour, but she knew and loved him as a man of God, a fearless preacher of truth, love and fairness, and an extraordinary, compassionate healer of many, including herself. For this reason, she honoured and loved him and dared to show her love by that extravagant gesture of anointing him with perfumed oil, to which Judas so cuttingly objected.
Rising to her defence, Jesus interprets her loving act as a preliminary anointing for his burial. “She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial.” A little earlier, the Jewish high priest Caiaphas has declared that “One man must die for the nation,” and a few verses later Jesus will speak of the need for the seed to die, in order to bear much fruit (Jn 12:24), and of his imminent “Lifting Up” so that he can draw all people to himself (12:32). Mary’s impulsive act of loving generosity is thus given the status of a prophecy, preparing for his sacrificial death.
What is puzzling about this story is that it is so relatively little known, and that it has not received sacramental status in the Church. Our Catholic leadership is adamant that whatever kind of quasi-ministry may be implied in her act of anointing, or in her later mission of announcing to the apostles that the tomb of Jesus was empty – more, that he was truly risen – does not constitute any basis for allowing women to be ordained. Perhaps that may explain why the Lord’s clear directive, in the parallel passage about an anointing by an unnamed woman in Bethany (Matthew 26:13), that “Wherever this gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done shall also be told, in memory of her,” is so little observed. Gospel texts such as these would seem to call us to reconsider what Jesus himself thought of as ministry within his community, which has less to do with status and with power, than with actual loving service.
First Reading: Isaiah 42:1-7
Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations. He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice. He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his teaching.
Thus says God, the Lord, who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and what comes from it, who gives breath to the people upon it and spirit to those who walk in it: I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.
Gospel: John 12:1-11
Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”
When the great crowd of the Jews learned that he was there, they came not only because of Jesus but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. So the chief priests planned to put Lazarus to death as well, since it was on account of him that many of the Jews were deserting and were believing in Jesus.