Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them* with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, ‘Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii* and the money given to the poor?’ (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, ‘Leave her alone. She bought it* so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.’In this passage, it is what Jesus says at the end that sets the context for understanding. The contrast between Mary's extravagant, boundary-crossing, sensual attention to Jesus and the portrayal of Judas as a hypocritical, lying thief pushes many questions to the forefront as we consider how we, travelers on this Lenten journey, are to understand this in light of our on-going disciplined preparation for the Passion to come.
When the great crowd of the Jews learned that he was there, they came not only because of Jesus but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. So the chief priests planned to put Lazarus to death as well, since it was on account of him that many of the Jews were deserting and were believing in Jesus.
Jesus' rebuke of Judas is often misused, a way of dismissing the needs of the poor. Yet, it is part of a verse from Deuteronomy that sees in the prevalence of poverty and need our obligation to serve them. Jesus is not dismissing Judas claim that the perfume could have been sold and the proceeds used to help those in need; he is, rather, changing the subject. Mary, it seems, understands that Jesus' presence with them is not something to take for granted. The nearly invisible line between sex and death, between honoring a beloved friend and displaying desire, between religious and sexual ecstasy in Mary's actions need not be pulled apart here; Jesus is neither shocked nor even surprised by what she has done.
In the anointing of his feet, in using her hair to spread the oily perfume around not only to cleanse Jesus' feet but to prepare Jesus for his coming death, Mary grasps the heart of the conflicting emotions at the remembrance - the anamnesis - of Holy Week. Like Mary's household, we celebrate the presence of Jesus in our lives. The arrival in Jerusalem surely signals the end of our disciplined journey through Lent, a time to break our fast, to join with our fellow disciples and be about the work of serving the poor. We are brought up short by Mary's act, and Jesus' rebuke of Judas, however, not because of its intimacy. Rather, because Jesus reminds us that arriving in Jerusalem, like the Lenten disciplines, are not an end in themselves. Jesus has come to Jerusalem for a reason, a purpose.
He is here to die.
Mary's act is as much one of mourning as of celebration; of preparing for the tomb as preparing for a night together in bed; of the recognition of loss as the celebration of living in the presence of a beloved Other. Jesus breaks the mood of celebration by reminding us that we are still in Lent. We still have days to go before the story reaches its conclusion. We should remember to seek God's Kingdom first, God's righteousness first; serving the poor, should it be among our gifts and blessings, will be added to us as long as we, like Mary always seems to do, remember the first, and better, thing. Because Jesus will not be with us in the flesh, we must celebrate this remembrance of his presence with a tinge of mourning, with the foreknowledge we have that it is but an instant, another step along the Lenten journey that leads us, inexorably, sometimes against our wishes, to the foot of the cross on Friday, to the ground before an empty tomb on Sunday.
We are still in Lent. We still need to practice our disciplines preparing us for what lies ahead. Just as Mary prepares Jesus for his grave, even as she celebrates his presence with them in her household.