Monday of Holy Week
Isaiah 42:1-7 and John 12:1-11
Perhaps you or someone you know has been on pilgrimage. Whether long or short, far away or nearby, pilgrimages are ritual journeys to a sacred destination where the participants hope to encounter the divine and be transformed. Often there are “resting places” along the way where the pilgrim can reflect and recommit to the journey.
The scripture readings of Holy Week invite us to go on a truly transformational pilgrimage, one that takes us to the cross and beyond. It began yesterday with the Palm Sunday processional reading, through which we were invited to accompany Jesus into Jerusalem amid the cheering crowds. But a dark cloud hangs over this scene because of the fate that is about to befall Jesus.
Today’s gospel reading takes us to another of those resting places along the pilgrim’s path. As the story begins, we learn that it is less than a week before Passover, the great pilgrimage feast of remembrance of God’s liberation of the chosen people. Jerusalem is already filled with visitors making ready for the festival. Meanwhile, in a nearby village, Martha and Mary, the sisters of Lazarus, are hosting a party for Jesus. The story suggests that they are respected women of the community, perhaps well off, but certainly well positioned in the social fabric of Bethany. But when they were at table, Mary does the unthinkable! She takes on the task that belonged to the lowliest household servant. She bends down and anoints Jesus’ feet. Even more scandalous, she takes down her hair and uses it to wipe his feet!
Anyone hearing this story in the first century CE would have thought, “What a foolish woman! She’s such a spendthrift! She wasted this very expensive ointment on a man who has been nothing but trouble for our religious leaders. To make it worse, she lowered herself to the status of a slave and, if that wasn’t enough, she displayed herself in public in ways that a respectable woman would only do at home and with her husband. How shameful!” But when Judas accuses Mary of wasting what should have gone to the poor, she doesn’t defend herself. In fact, we don’t hear her speak at all. Instead, Jesus comes to her defense saying, “She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial” (John 12:7).
Thus, a powerful dichotomy is set up between Judas and Mary, the sister of Lazarus. As we find ourselves at this place on the pilgrimage to Jesus’ death and beyond, we have to ask ourselves, “Am I like Mary or like Judas?” Am I willing to invite Jesus into my life, offer him hospitality, and give myself over to a relationship of intimacy, even if it means losing honor and respect in other people’s eyes?
But again, the dark cloud of Jesus’ impending death hangs over the scene. In subsequent verses of the gospel, we learn that the religious authorities were so disturbed about losing their hold on the people that they immediately plotted to kill Lazarus (John 12:10). They had already resolved to kill Jesus (John 11:45-54). Later, we’ll learn that Mary has already set an example for what Jesus tells the disciples to do. “If I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you as an example, that you also should do as I have done to you” (John 13:14-15).
Today’s first reading from Isaiah so eloquently expresses what it means to be servant. Early Christians interpreted the text to be about Jesus, but the message is much broader. It is a call to servanthood for all those who honor God and who are open to God’s spirit within them. As we continue on pilgrimage to Easter Sunday, perhaps we can ask ourselves, “Am I willing to let God grasp me by the hand and make me an agent of justice on the earth, a covenant for the people, and a liberator of those who are imprisoned in darkness?”
Dr. Catherine Cory
Chair of the Department of History