Mosaic from the Cappella della “Casa incontri cristiani” a Capiago
As we begin Holy Week, I just want to reflect on just one incident within the shocking drama that begins to unfold. The anointing of Jesus at Bethany. All the gospels record this, though with variations. As Jesus reclines at the home of Simon the Leper (someone Jesus previously healed, perhaps?) a woman comes in and empties a jar full of costly nard on Jesus. She remains unnamed in Matthew and Mark, though John situates this in the home of Lazarus and identifies the woman as Mary, Martha’s sister. It is possible that John is using a different incident of similar nature, since in John’s gospel, the raising of Lazarus becomes the immediate cause of the plot to kill Jesus. Either way, they all have a similar effect.
It is easy to forget that this beautiful act of love appears as part of the Passion account. It happens in the final week of Jesus’ life on earth. Mark sandwiches this account between describing the plot of the priests and Scribes to put Jesus to death and the betrayal by Judas. It is hard to overestimate the diabolic nature of what the priests plan. These are the religious leaders, the shepherds of Israel. They were the ‘watchmen on the wall’, the first to read God’s action in his land and to protect the sheep from the wolves that might come to devour them. And they callously fabricate lies to kill an innocent man, knowing fully that he is innocent. Just as Jesus sets his ‘face like flint’, going to what he knows full well would be his ignominious death, the chief priests have set their hearts firmly on their evil plans. The only thing constraining them at the moment is a lack of opportunity. The opportunity will come soon enough, as Judas will come forward, offering to betray Jesus. If the plot of the priests and Scribes is shocking, Judas’ betrayal is of another order, altogether. For two thousand years, we have known Judas as ‘the betrayer’, so hearing his actions seem congruent with his nature. But this was not how he started. This was not how the others new him – not how Jesus related to him. For the twelve, he was a fellow disciple. Jesus called him a friend. He would have called Jesus his friend. Judas’ action was a deep betrayal of friendship; a strike to the heart, that only someone close could deliver. He would deliver it precisely as a friend, by kissing Jesus.
Between these two moments of pain, Mark notes the action of this anonymous woman. Her act is peculiar to say the least; from the disapproval and judgment that she faces, it certainly was something that shocked everyone. Nard was very expensive perfume, and quite strong. One did not empty a whole container on someone, just as you would not empty a bottle of perfume on yourself today. John notes how the house was filled with the fragrance. That certainly would have been the case. This is the extravagance of love. Love does not measure. It wants to give everything. 300 days wages probably meant that this was something of her life saving. This was often how the poor saved their money – by buying something like this costly ointment on a regular basis. It could also have been a heirloom, passed on from her mother or grandmother. Either way, it was precious. In pouring out her life’s saving on Jesus, she was saying that he was more important to her than her own life, her future – and in it being an heirloom – she was saying all her history belonged to him. Within this ocean of bitterness into which Jesus was entering, here at the beginning comes an oasis of love, from one unnamed woman. The reaction of Judas that this could have been money given to the poor reveals his thinking. It was the time when all families were required to give to the poor. For someone like Judas though, his worldview was shaped by money. He probably resented having to part with all the money from the common purse which he handled; the money was his livelihood, his future. All he could think of now, was not so much about the poor, but how much he could have saved if that money had been given to him to give to the poor. After having walked with Jesus for three years, he still could not open himself to trust the Providence and love of God. And in this act of this woman, which only Love could understand, he finally comes apart and betrays Jesus. This woman on the other hand, had obviously experienced the touch of Christ’s love. And that was enough to open herself to his love completely. And in loving so much, she could discern who was the one who was truly poor amongst them – Jesus, who would be rejected, betrayed, tortured, expelled, humiliated and crucified like a criminal. Love knows things which the mind can only vaguely see. And Jesus recognises in her act, that she had anointed him for burial – crucified criminals were not anointed and buried. Being touched by this woman’s love, he would go through his bitter journey, exuding the fragrance of heaven itself.
It is now our turn, to pour out our own precious nard on Jesus, as this week begins. Do not underestimate the consolation you give, which you alone can give, to the wounded heart of Christ. The love that you can show him, no one else can. Only you can slake his thirst, for which he cried out on the Cross. And all love begins and ends with the same – presence. This is the heart of prayer. Like any relationship, it is only when you spend time with someone, you learn what they are like, you can see them for who they are, you can begin to love them. When you love someone, you want to be more and more with them, you want union with the one you most deeply love. This week, unplug from everything that is unimportant. A priest I know used to say ‘We have to waste time with God’. There is nothing more important this week. Everything else can wait. Pour out your love on Jesus. Accompany him in his passion. And be changed by the his Love which never fails.