Six days before the Passover, one day before Palm Sunday, and not long before Holy Week, Jesus came to Bethany to where Lazarus was with his siblings, Martha and Mary (John 12:1-8). Parallel accounts in Matthew (26:6-13) and Mark (14:3-9) tell us that they were at the house of Simon the leper. While Martha served supper, Jesus sat at the table with Lazarus and Mary took a pound of pure costly ointment of nard, an imported spice from India, and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair. The fragrance of the ointment filled the house.
Judas Iscariot thought the action was a colossal waste because the ointment was worth three hundred denarii (one year’s wages for a laborer) and could’ve been given to the poor. Parallel accounts in Matthew and Mark seem to indicate that some of the other disciples agreed with Judas in reproaching Mary. Hahn and Mitch are accurate in pointing out that “It is tragic that Judas complained about Mary’s extravagance when he betrayed Jesus for much less—‘thirty pieces of silver’” (Matt. 26:15).
Jesus told them to leave her alone and that she should keep some of the ointment for his burial. They will always have an opportunity to give alms to the poor but he will not always be present, he declared. Matthew and Mark also disclose that he said that she had done a beautiful thing for him and that this act of devotion would become a memorial to her for generations to come wherever the gospel is preached.
In meditating on this story, three take-aways emerge that are, by no means, exhaustive, but grist for the mill in beginning the conversation, especially about our life together in the Church:
For one, we should be careful how we judge what someone does with their gratitude. One beautiful aspect of the Eucharist for the practicing Catholic is that the Real Presence gives us something to do with our thankful heart. Eucharist means “thanksgiving.”
In the Mass the sacrifice of Christ is represented and we meditate on the blessings we have received in forgiveness of sins, eternal life, healing, and sanctification, just to name a few. Partaking of the Body and the Blood of Christ gives us a chance to respond with thanksgiving for what God has done for us in Christ. We get to do something with our gratitude.
This is what Mary of Bethany was doing and she was excoriated. While I was involved in campus ministry at the University of Minnesota at Minneapolis, a young man who was a recent college graduate was involved in our ministry. “Ted” had a few tattoos and piercings and felt especially drawn to share the gospel in coffee houses and other venues near campus with others who were similarly “adorned.”
This was not, for the most part, the crowd I was reaching out to, and, admittedly, I had concerns that he might get drawn into some of the negative aspects of this subculture. However, it became obvious that the ministry that Ted was devoted to was the result of what he was doing with his gratitude: he wanted to pass on to others the redemption he had experienced. The wisdom of Mary of Bethany would tell us that, if people are pursuing a ministry that does not contravene Scripture, Tradition, or the Magisterium, then turn them loose.
In Matthew’s version of this story, the disciples ask, “Why this waste?” I have heard some Protestants (and a Social Justice Warrior or two) ask the same question after they have visited some medieval church or ancient basilica, and, like the disciples, opine that what was spent on this ornate building, back in the day, could’ve been given to the poor. Has some of this thinking crept into the contemporary American Catholic view of church architecture and given us buildings that are horizontal structures devoid of a sense of transcendence, glorified gymnasiums without an intimation of the sacred? Would Christ himself regard it as waste if more treasure was spent in creating sacred spaces for our encounter with the Divine?
Duncan G. Stroik, professor of architecture at the University of Notre Dame, is particularly spot-on concerning this issue:
To design sacred buildings is to help dispose visitors to contemplating the things above, to be aware of the holy, and to embrace the eternal within the ephemeral. People should see and feel that they are entering a place out of the ordinary, a place in which the concerns of life can be seen in relation to eternity. There should be a certain mystery, or even a strangeness, expressed by the architecture. A sacred place should not be convenient to enter like a department store, comfortable like a café, or predictable like a lecture hall. Rather, as a place whose reason for existence is to foster the encounter with the divine, it must be designed in a way that helps us to focus on the Divinity.
Mary of Bethany would counsel us to do what we can to accommodate transcendence and create sacred architecture.
While involved in church ministry years ago in rural Alaska, I reached out to “Chuck” and “Vicki,” a couple who lived in a school bus and were new Christians. Chuck was an ex-con and underemployed and Vicki had stayed with him through thick and thin. Our small church expended time, talent, and treasure in helping them with their physical needs and in trying to facilitate their formation in Christ.
Early returns were good but later it became clear that Chuck was physically abusing Vicki and the two separated. Months later they reconciled and re-committed their lives to Christ and left the area to (I think) find work. A little while after that I got a call from Chuck who admitted that he was back on drugs. I directed him to a particular Christian-based drug and alcohol rehabilitation center but never heard from him again. Shortly after that I realized that Chuck had stolen some items from me when both he and Vicki lived with me for two weeks while their living situation was getting sorted out.
When time, talent, and treasure are expended, and the returns don’t look so good, it’s easy to say with the disciples “Why this waste?” Parents feel this when they put it all out there for a wayward child who decides to remain the prodigal. Spouses feel this way when they do everything short of shedding blood to save a failing marriage, but their husband or wife is not open to reconciling. Friends feel this way in a one-way “friendship” that doesn’t actually feel like much of a friendship.
Is this effort all wasted? I think not, because, if the relationship was pursued in good faith with good will towards the other person(s), we, like Mary of Bethany, are anointing Christ’s feet with a costly perfume called Agape Love.
When we encounter unrequited love, it’s easy to retreat into a fortress of self-protection, but we must instead turn to the sagacious words of C.S. Lewis:
To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.
In opening up this alabaster jar of vulnerability, we follow in the footsteps of God who did so much for the children of Israel but so few of that nation entered the promised land; who gave his beloved Son for the sins of the world, and although “the world was made through him, yet the world knew him not. He came to his own home, and his own people received him not” (John 1:10b-11). For those who measure everything in terms of success and failure and are driven by the god of pragmatism, such behavior is foolish, but for those called to imitate the Passion, it’s a family tradition.
Editor’s note: The image above, titled “Feast of Simon the Pharisee,” was painted by Rubens in 1618.