Pathways through Lent

Weekday reflections from St. John’s in the season of Lent.

Monday in Holy Week: March 25, 2024

This is one of my favorite stories in John’s Gospel, not least because it is such a model of clarity, so accessible. None of the usual “I am in him, and he in me, and if you are in me, you are in him, etc.” No, this is a story of a person, devoted to Jesus, who anoints his feet with a valuable perfume, in an act of love, with a premonition of his death.

Lazarus, Martha, and Mary only appear in the Gospel of John, but there they play an important role. The first time, Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead, one of the most dramatic miracles of his entire ministry. And this first story also gives us the defining domestic scene of Martha complaining that Mary—sitting devoted at Jesus’s feet—is not helping enough with the housework, to which Jesus replies: “Martha, Martha, you are worried and upset about many things, but few are needed.” In this second story, however, Lazarus and Martha are present, but only in the background. This one is all about Mary and this selfless—and, perhaps, sacramental—act which precedes the crucifixion.

Interestingly this part of the story appears in the other three Gospels, but with an unnamed woman. In Luke she has a troubled past and appears at the house of Simon the Pharisee well before the final week. In Matthew and Mark, she is in Bethany at the same time as in John, but with no history. The woman in Luke who intrudes (with her reputation) into the Pharisee’s dinner party to anoint Jesus's feet, using her hair to spread both tears and perfume, is sometimes associated with Mary Magdalene. Others have suggested there were two separate anointings, one in Galilee, another later in Bethany near Jerusalem.

No matter—what is crucial is the importance that the Gospel writers and Jesus attach to this act, the prominence they give it. In Mark’s account, Jesus says: “Truly I tell you, wherever the Gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.” That’s because Mary—or the anonymous woman, whether “sinful” or not—has recognized what few of the men have, despite what Jesus has been telling them. She understands that Jesus is about to die. And furthermore, she does what no priest or pharisee or apostle does—none of the men. She takes her valuable perfume and anoints Jesus for his death.

So, here’s the question: as we enter Holy Week, how will we recognize the death that is shortly to come; and how will we anoint our Lord?

William Morris
Assisting Priest for Engaging Local Communities

Links to the appointed readings for today