In the gospel (John 21: 1 – 11) of today’s Monday of the Holy Week, Jesus, after his grand arrival in Jerusalem, withdrew from the crowd and spent Sunday night quietly in the house of his friends, Mary, Martha and Lazarus at Bethany, the village at the foot of Mount Olives. Jesus may have sensed his impending suffering and death and chose to spend the last moments of his life in companionship with his friends. Mary, Martha and Lazarus. The siblings gladly received Him in their house and offered Him and his disciples a special dinner.
John 21: 2 says, “So they gave a dinner for him there.” We can interpret this as a celebration of the resurrection of Lazarus. Mary, Martha and Lazarus “gave” him this dinner. This is a thank you dinner to Jesus for raising Lazarus from the dead. This is not just an ordinary evening meal among friends. Its focus is on Jesus and his amazing power in raising Lazarus from the dead. And Lazarus is right there reclining at the table: “Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those reclining with him at table.”
Since this is a dinner to honor and thank Jesus for his gift of life, Mary will now make her presentation. Perhaps the whole family planned this moment. Perhaps they pooled their savings to buy this gift. Or perhaps it is a hugely valuable family heirloom that has been passed on for years, and now the time has come to pour it out.
Mary took a liter of costly perfumed oil
made from genuine aromatic nard
and anointed the feet of Jesus and dried them with her hair;
the house was filled with the fragrance of the oil.
Martha’s role was to thank Jesus by seeing to the details of the dinner, and Mary’s role was to thank Jesus by pouring this expensive ointment out on Jesus. In both these ways they would express their wonder and joy and thanks for the greatness of Jesus and his grace and power to raise Lazarus from the dead.
But Judas speaks up with unbelievable disregard for what Mary has done. Verse 4:
Then Judas the Iscariot, one of his disciples,
and the one who would betray him, said,
“Why was this oil not sold for three hundred days’ wages
and given to the poor?”
If Judas wasn’t exaggerating, this eleven-ounce flask of nard was worth about $25,000 (three hundred twelve-hour days at minimum wage, a denarius was a simple, full day’s wage). Judas’s scheme of values was so deeply different from Mary and Martha and Lazarus’s that in a few days he would do the opposite of giving $25,000 for Jesus: he would sell him for a thousand dollars (thirty pieces of silver).
John tells us in verse 6 what is really in Judas’s heart:
He said this not because he cared about the poor
but because he was a thief and held the money bag
and used to steal the contributions.
Now Jesus responds to Judas to leave Mary alone.
“Leave her alone.
Let her keep this for the day of my burial.
You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”
Jesus appreciated the tremendous love behind Mary’s action and saw it as a symbolical anointing for his burial. Dying as a common criminal, Jesus would normally not have been anointed. (And, in fact, he was not anointed after his burial; when the women went to do the act on Sunday morning, Jesus was already risen.)
A few days later after this incident, Jesus will do the same loving service for his disciples, washing their feet before the last supper. Up to the very end of his life, Jesus, showed that we can find the greatest meaning of our lives through servanthood. The pinnacle of this servanthood is Jesus’ giving his own life on the cross.
What can we learn from this beautiful story as we enter Holy Week?
Holy week is the preparation for the resurrection of Jesus. The siblings Martha, Mary and Lazarus’ hearts were full of wonder, gratitude and joy for Jesus who raised Lazarus into new life. Their overflowing affection was demonstrated in their lavish offering of special dinner and Mary’s anointing of Jesus’ feet with a very expensive perfume. These days of Holy Week, indeed, is more of a celebration of the joy and wonder of Jesus’ resurrection inasmuch as it is a commeration of his passion and death.
But in order to fully participate in Jesus’ resurrection we need to pass through suffering and death with him. Jesus showed us what it means to suffer and die with him through a life of servanthood. He showed this not just on the cross but during the anointing and washing of disciples’ feet at the last supper. This was also demonstrated by Mary in today’s gospel when she anointed Jesus’ feet. Anointing has always been a symbol of being chosen and sent on a mission–a life of discipleship and service.
In commemoration of this beautiful experience in Jesus’ life, Catholic dioceses all over the world, gather together with all the priest and the bishop at a Mass called the Chrism Mass. Obviously this cannot be done today in all the dioceses given the unfortunate circumstances of the lockdown.
During the Chrism Mass, the bishop consecrates the sacred oils to be used in the sacraments of Baptism, Anointing, and Holy Orders. Each parish receives its annual supply of these oils at the Chrism Mass, which in some dioceses is celebrated on the Monday of Holy Week. The chrism in these sacraments is a symbol of our participation in the paschal mystey of Jesus–his life, death and resurrection.
As we begin Holy Week, we are called to prepare and participate in the passion, death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus. We are not here this week just to be mere spectators. We are to be part of the work, which the Paschal Mystery of Jesus inaugurated. Like Mary, we can be part of Jesus’ passing over from death to new life by becoming God’s servant. We, too, are to be servants, ready, if necessary, to suffer as Jesus did for the sake of our brothers and sisters.