Monday of Holy Week
To love the human Jesus is already to love the Divine Word
The Gospel for today (Jn 12:1-20) is a story filled with symbolism and mystery.
The first thing to note is a series of odd parallelisms between Jesus' dinner with Martha, Mary, and Lazarus, and Jesus' later dinner with his disciples, recounted in John 13.
The first dinner takes place "six days before Passover" (12:1); the second takes place one day before Passover (13:1). In the first, Mary anoints Jesus' feet; in the second, Jesus washes the disciples feet. Both events are understood by Jesus as foreshadowing his death: let Mary cherish the memory of this anointing "for the day of my burial," Jesus says (12:7); Jesus likewise begins to wash his disciples feet only when he "knew that his hour had come to pass from this world to the Father" (13:1).
When Mary anoints Jesus' feet, we are told that "the house was filled with the fragrance of the oil" (12:3); and just after Jesus washes his disciples' feet, he tells them "In my Father's house there are many dwelling places. If there were not, would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you? (14:2-3). It would appear that the pervasive "fragrance" of Jesus' anointing in John 12 symbolizes Jesus' own power to fill up the "Father's house" with his disciples.
When Mary anoints the feet of Jesus, then, it is as though she is anointing the body of the Lord who has already died, and whose death has filled us all with life. When Jesus washes the feet of his disciples, by contrast, he is symbolizing the death he is about to suffer for them, and how they should understand it.
Mary's action strangely seems to anticipate and celebrate Jesus' salvific death before it has even occurred, even as Jesus' own action is designed to lead his disciples into an understanding of his death they do not yet possess. How can this be?
One possible answer is that the author of John's Gospel intends us to read Mary of Bethany's anointing of Jesus' feet alongside Mary of Magdala's discovery of the empty tomb in John 20. Mary of Bethany and Mary of Magdala have often been conflated in the Catholic tradition, but they are very likely two different women. At the same time, however, they are presented as sharing the same narrative and symbolic role in the Gospel of John, and this is the more significant point to make. These women, together with the famous "beloved disciple" of the Gospel, love and are loved by Jesus in a peculiar way.
The love they have for the human Jesus not only outstrips their faith in Jesus' divinity but paradoxically gives them a kind of enduring patience we might think only possible through faith. But perhaps to love the human Jesus is always already to love the Divine Word.
Dr. William Junker
Assistant Professor of Catholic Studies
Co-Director, Terrence J. Murphy Institute for Catholic Thought, Law and Public Policy