The Dominican friar, Blessed Humbert of Romans O.P. once said "First the bow is bent in study, then the arrow is released in preaching..." These are the sermons of fr. Lawrence Lew O.P., a Friar Preacher (Dominican), interspersed with art and some of his photographs.
The scene in today’s Gospel is rather extraordinary, even bizarre: a woman washing the feet of a rabbi reclining at the dinner table with her tears, kissing and wiping his feet with her unbound hair, and anointing his feet with costly ointment. But this extravagant spectacle is a response to God’s even more extraordinary and bizarre actions.
For the scandal of Christianity, its strangeness, is that we believe in a God who loves Mankind so much that God would abase himself for humanity’s sake. We say that God, who is entirely self-sufficient and needs nothing, freely chooses to save Mankind; he has a Father’s care and concern for our well-being. And we proclaim that God does the unimaginable and becomes Man; the Immortal who knows no change endures both change and suffering, even death. Why? Because as St Paul says: Christ “loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal 2:20). Jesus Christ, and all he does in his life, death, and resurrection, is one extravagant spectacle of God’s love for you and me. And I wonder sometimes if we’ve just become so accustomed to it that we take it for granted.
Because God’s sacrificial love in Jesus Christ for every human person, for us sinners, is extraordinary, even bizarre and strange… But also wonderful; so amazing that some people today, made sceptical and cynical by life, may even find it literally incredible! Many of us may have just forgotten how breathtakingly unexpected the Gospel is. But in a world that’s burdened by debt and crushing austerity measures, Jesus’ parable resonates with the experience of many today, and reminds us of just how extraordinary the Christian message is.
We know that financial institutions are relentless in their pursuit for what they’re owed. Economic justice and the Law are no respecters of persons and circumstance, lacking in compassion or human consideration, and our capitalist system requires us to work constantly to evade being crushed by debt, poverty, and our liabilities. This is how the sinner is under the Law – he owes a huge, un-payable debt, the burden of sin, to God. And, in justice, we should pay it all, to the last penny. The Pharisees, who work hard to avoid the debt of sin by keeping the Law, thus look at sinners (like the woman in today’s Gospel) just as some in our society might regard ‘welfare scroungers’ – with contempt.
Now, what Jesus does is to declare God’s mercy and forgiveness for all people, regardless of who they are, or what they’ve done. So, because of Jesus Christ, all debts are entirely cancelled, and all the worry, strife, and heartache that go with debt and poverty. We can see, then, why the woman reacted with such effusive gratitude towards Christ. But Jesus does still more because of love: he gives to anyone who comes to him all that she could ever want, and more than she could ever imagine – he gives the grace of salvation.
All we need is to have faith in him, to believe in Jesus and trust his Word; to go to him. What this does is to completely level the market so that not only are there no debtors at all, but there is now also no distinction between those who are unemployed and those who work hard; between the poor and the rich. It sounds somewhat bizarre in our capitalist system, but that is precisely what St Paul is getting at when he says that “a man is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ” (Gal 2:16). He’s saying that God’s grace is freely given to all through faith in Christ, and this grace is never earned nor merited. On this basis, we are all equal and have equal opportunity. Equal opportunity for what, though? To acquire Christ-like charity so as to invest in eternal life. And it is this end result – eternal life – that is really extraordinary.
The disciples were afraid and fearful, and so, they did not understand Jesus’ talk about being arrested, killed, and rising again from the dead. So that, when these things took place, they fled for fear. They feared the Cross, persecution and suffering to such an extent that they were too afraid to even ask Jesus what he was talking about. And such fear is indeed perfectly understandable, and quite humanly reasonable. For it is natural to want to avoid suffering for fear of its evils; it’s reasonable and sensible to flee from harm and danger.
And yet, there are times when we willingly sacrifice our comfort and ease for a greater good. There are times when we do stand our ground, face our fears, and not flee. One only has to think of the diets and strenuous exercise inflicted on oneself for the sake of one’s health… Or, more significantly, I think of new parents who will give up sleep, or people who give up careers to care for a sick parent, child, or spouse. Indeed, at this sad time, I think, too, of the relief and emergency services hard at work to rescue and help those affected by the tornadoes in America. In all these situations, and so many others including the sitting of exams, we need the virtue of courage. It enables us to press on, to endure pain and discomfort, quite literally, for goodness’ sake.
But in addition to the natural virtue of courage, which we can acquire by our own human efforts and perseverance over a lifetime, there are those supernatural gifts from God which strengthen and perfect the natural moral virtues. They are inspirations or promptings of the Holy Spirit to move us towards our greatest good and our final end, which is to share in God’s divine life through Christ-like love.
Along with the six other gifts of the Holy Spirit, it is fortitude that was given to the disciples at Pentecost so that they emerge from their locked rooms, overcoming their fear to openly preach the Gospel. Mindful that “if [they] come forward to serve the Lord” they must be prepared for trials (cf Sir 2:1), the disciples now had the courage to risk imprisonment, beatings, ridicule, and even death to witness to Christ’s Gospel, that is, for the sake of truth. Ultimately, they were willing to sacrifice all, even martyrdom, for the sake of the greatest good, namely, eternal life with God. Courage like this, of course, would be foolish and rash if it were not based on truth. But it is: the truth of Christ’s own life; Jesus’ own sacrificial death and resurrection, which he had spoken of in today’s Gospel.
The disciples, when they were still afraid, had not understood this, but after Pentecost, filled with the Spirit and his gifts, they understood. They had faith in Christ’s life and witness, and hope in Christ’s promise that we would share his glory. And so, with fortitude and the other gifts of the Spirit, they were inspired to model their lives on Christ’s. They willed to forsake their own comfort, to suffer and even to die, not just for the sake of goodness, but for the sake of Love.
Today, we may not be martyred like the apostles were, but we do still need fortitude for the daily living out of our Christian calling, to remain faithful to Christ especially when it is difficult and demanding. This, too, is a martyrdom, as our lives bear witness to the Gospel with sacrifice, as we die to our self, our fears, and our egocentric desires. Thus, it takes fortitude to persevere in marriage, to be a true friend, to stay committed to our religious vows, to be faithful in our jobs and in all the daily tasks we don’t necessarily enjoy. It takes fortitude to confront our sins, repent, and go to confession. But when we’re faced with difficulty and trials, we can either flee from them into an easier, more comfortable way, avoiding the challenge, or we can confront our fears, stand true, and choose to act with love.
If we choose love, then we will need fortitude. So, let us pray to the Holy Spirit, and ask him to re-kindle in our hearts the gifts he first gave us at our Confirmation.
One of the characteristics of friendship is that friends share important aspects of their life with one another and reveal things about themselves to one another. So, Jesus has said that he calls us his friends because he makes known to us all that he has heard from his Father (Jn 15:15). And that is what he is doing in today’s Gospel, showing us friendship by revealing to us the beautiful intimacy of the life of the Holy Trinity, and leading us to see what friendship with God entails.
The verses I want to concentrate on are these, the final words in Jesus’ long Last Supper discourse and prayer. He says: “I made known to them your name, and I will make it known, that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them” (Jn 17:26). Here, Jesus is speaking of the person of the Holy Spirit, who is Love itself, the perfect love of the Father and the Son. It is the Holy Spirit who is the mutual bond of love between the Father and the Son, so that, as St Thomas says: “The Father and the Son love each other through the Holy Spirit”. Thus, the Holy Trinity is a communion of love; “God is love”, as St John says (1 Jn 4:8).
So, Jesus says that the Holy Spirit, the love with which the Father loves the Son, comes to dwell in us. And this happens when Jesus has made known the Father’s name to us. For this is what the Son has come to do: to reveal to us, his friends, that God is Abba, Father, and to teach us how to live as God’s sons and daughters. Through Christ, then, and through faith in his Word, we are able to have the same relationship of divine Sonship that he has with the Father.
This faith, this knowledge of the Truth, comes from Christ for he is Truth. And faith precedes love because we cannot love who we do not know – which is why it is important to read the Scriptures, to engage in theology and learn about God and the Faith. Because as we come to know the Father; as we profess the Truth that Christ and his Church teaches us; and we become converted to the mind of Christ, so that we think and see as he does; then the Spirit comes to us too. The Spirit comes as Love itself to hold us in a mutual bond of love with the Father, and to empower us to love the Father as the Son does, that is, through him. Hence, St Paul says: “Because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’” (Gal 4:6).
The result of this coming of the Son and the Holy Spirit to dwell in us is that we know and love the Father, and so, we are united with the one God, dwelling in the communion of love that is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And this is what we mean by the life of grace, which is given in Baptism, and for you and me to be in a state of grace, which is only lost through mortal sin. But Confession restores this grace to us if we’ve lost it, so that we have communion and friendship with the Holy Trinity once more.
This life of grace is, quite literally, heaven on earth, and eternity right now; it is our humanity being sanctified and made divine so that God doesn’t just call us his friends. He calls you “my beloved son”.
One word recurs in our readings today: glory, from the Latin gloria. But what, really, do we mean by glory? Usually, I think this word evokes light, brilliance, and splendour. And these are related to the Greek word for glory, which is doxa. But if we look at the Scriptural origins of glory from the Hebrew word kabod we find something rather unexpected. Glory, coming from kabod is related to weight. So, in contrast with our association of glory with soaring flights of angels, light, and uplift, glory, coming from the Hebrew kabod, denotes a quality of being heavy with weight, wealth or nobility, or with exceptional goodness. Glory, in this sense, implies the wealth and power of the king, his riches and worth, because of what he has done. Or we can think of an Olympian or a soldier who has achieved glory in athletics or combat, and is weighed down with medals; their weightiness proclaim what he has achieved, they glorify him.
If we translate this idea to God, then kabod, glory, signifies the wonderful work that God has done in creating all that is, and it tells of what Christ has achieved in dying, rising again and ascending into heaven. For God’s greatest work, his heaviest impact, his glory is seen in the salvation of sinful humanity; in our being brought from the death of sin to the fullness and abundance of new life in the risen Lord Jesus. Thus St Irenaeus said that “the glory of God is Man fully alive”. The glory of God is you and me, being re-born through grace as sons and daughters of God, sharing in the divine life of Christ, being one with him in the communion of love that is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (cf Jn 17:26).
This tremendous work of God’s grace that lifts up a sinner to become a saint, beckoning Mankind to “Come” and enjoy freedom and life in the Trinity (cf Apoc 22:17), brings about the glory of God. And the effect of God’s grace is glorious, and this is probably why the word ‘glory’ has come to connote light, brilliance and uplift, because the effect of what God has done for us, what his grace causes, is to raise sinful Man up to share in God’s light and divine life.
However, the idea of God’s glory, kabod, is still related to weightiness because each saint is like a shining medal glorifying God, signifying who he is – our Creator and Redeemer – and what he has done – united the saint to God’s self through grace. For each and every saint, beginning with St Stephen, the first martyr of the Church, witnesses to the triumph of God’s grace. Stephen’s life and death testifies to what God has done for weak, frightened and sinful humanity through Jesus Christ, which is to re-make each human person in Christ’s image, strengthened with his virtues. Thus, Stephen’s death, which completes and seals his life’s work, is deliberately portrayed by St Luke as mirroring Jesus’ death: both innocently condemned, executed outside the city, and died forgiving their killers.
The work of God’s grace that re-fashions us in Christ’s image is weighty, heavy business; the work of our sanctification and our salvation is impressive, world-impacting, life-changing. As such, it’s also glorious. And kabod does carry this notion of being heavy with goodness. In this sense, we might speak of the weight of our vocation as Christians. For we’re called to be holy, we’re made for glory, and this will involve a certain expectation of what we’re called to do. This gives a certain weightiness to the moral choices we make, and heavy sacrifices will be necessary. For love demands sacrifice, as the life of Christ and of St Stephen shows us, but it is only through love that we become like Christ, that we are united and become one with God who is love.
The Holy Spirit is called the parakletos, the One-Who-Is-Called-Alongside you and me. He stands beside us, as our friend, but also as our counsellor and advocate. The language being used here is deliberately legal, and one calls to mind a courtroom situation in which we stand accused. Often, many people think that God accuses us of our sins, or we might blame ourselves and feel downcast because of what we’ve done, or it may look like the Church is pointing fingers at people to condemn them as sinners. But this cannot be; it’s diabolical. Because, quite simply, the one who accuses us, the one who blames us, and points fingers at us, and wants us to stand condemned of sin is not God, and not his holy Church, but the Devil. The Devil is the diabolos, the one who hurls his accusations across at us. It is he who attacks you and me with recriminations, and so, causes fear and troubles us. But Jesus says: “Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid” (Jn 14:27). Because against the prosecution of the Devil stands the parakletos, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in Jesus’ name to defend us, to raise us up through his grace, to restore us to peace.
For the peace that Christ gave us, which he won for us through his death and resurrection, and which we have through baptism, had been disturbed through sin. We experience a kind of disintegration in ourselves when we listen to Christ’s words, hear his teaching and say we love him, but we do not keep his word; we do not love him enough. So, sin splits us apart, and that is what the diabolos, the one who throws things apart, always wants to do – divide, splinter, and disintegrate. Thus, we find that we might know something to be good and true, we want to behave as children of the light, redeemed by Christ, but we don’t. We use our human freedom to choose our older ways – those more familiar and comfortable sins that our wills are too weak to resist. St Paul describes the situation vividly: “ I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate…” (Rom 7:15). And then, when we fail and fall, the Devil keeps us down, standing on our backs and telling us how rotten, how guilty, how hypocritical we are. It’s the kind of thing an unforgiving and judgmental Press metes out on public sinners, only far worse.
But in this darkness of sin and despair, as we’re being prosecuted and accused, we need to call out for our defence attorney; we just lack the ability to defend ourselves against so wily an Enemy. The Holy Spirit, we’re assured today, is the parakletos; we just need to call on him, and he will come alongside us as our defender. He comes to plead our case, to counsel and convince us. And what does he say?
It’s been so blustery lately that if you’re withdrawing money from the cash machine you need to be careful to hang on tight to the cash. A few days ago, I saw someone lose his grip and the wind snatched the notes away, and they were blown out of his reach! So, we need to keep a firm hold, particularly on valuable things, and especially in bad weather.
This is what Jesus does to us. He holds on tight so that nothing and “no one is able to snatch” us out of his hands. Because we are so precious to him, each and every single one of us. For every human being – all life – is created by God. So, he is our Father and his love sustains all that is. And we have been given to the Son, meaning that we belong to Christ. “We are his people and the sheep of his pasture” as we said in our psalm response. And because we’re his Christ “the Good Shepherd… laid down his life for his sheep and willingly died [for us] his flock” (cf Communion antiphon). He does this so that we are redeemed from sin and death, so that we can have eternal life, so that we can be for ever united to him in love. That’s what we call ‘heaven‘ – being one with God in perfect love.
So, we’re hard won, and bought at a great price – through Christ’s own suffering and death – and Jesus did this for us because he loves us. Therefore, because you and I are loved into being and sustained in love by the Father, and loved into salvation and eternal life by the Son, and united to God through the love of the Spirit, we are precious. You and I, and every human person is of infinite value to God, created to share in his divine dignity. And we, who have been baptised, have been elevated by grace to share in divine Sonship so that we’re not just sheep but are one with the Lamb, one with our Lord Jesus Christ on his Father’s throne.
Hence, because we’re so precious to Jesus, he hangs on to us, and he will not let anyone or anything snatch us away from him. As St Paul said: “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? […] No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 8:35. 37-39).
Rather, in all our trials and pain, Christ is hanging on to us. For he keeps a firm hold, particularly on us who are precious, and especially in stormy, windy, turbulent conditions. When we are suffering and sick and stressed; when we are demoralized, depressed and doubtful, Jesus is holding on to us very tight. So, in today’s Gospel he assures us that he knows us, his beloved flock. He knows how we suffer and what we endure in this life. But he wants us to know, too, that he loves us, especially in difficult times, and that he will never let us be snatched away by evil.
St Stephen is described as being “full of grace and power”, as speaking with a “wisdom” that could not be bettered, and he also “did great wonders and signs”. St Luke, in his Gospel, says similar things about Jesus, whose surpassing wisdom was evident in the Temple when, as a boy, he taught the scribes; who also performed miracles – wonders and signs – with power throughout his ministry. And, interestingly, the identical Greek phrase that St Luke uses to describe Stephen, pleres charitos, “full of grace”, is also used by St John to describe Christ, the Word become flesh who is “full of grace and truth” (Jn 1:14). And tomorrow, we will hear that Stephen died forgiving his killers, and commended his spirit to God at his death. Hence, St Stephen is portrayed as being very much like Jesus Christ, even identical to him in many respects.
But if Stephen is like Christ, this is because St Luke wants us to understand that Stephen is the model Christian. Thus he is truly another Christ. And he is only able to be like Christ, to do great things, and to preach truth compellingly because he is “full of grace and power”, that is, full of the Holy Spirit. For it is the Spirit of God who is grace, power and wisdom, and it is the Spirit of God who does wonders, miracles, and signs through men and women. So, what is true of Stephen is also true for us as Christians. For, at our baptism and each time we make a good confession, we also become, like Stephen, pleres charitos, full of grace. We have each been given God’s Spirit so that we can become like Christ; be another Christ, truly participating in Jesus’ grace and truth.
However, we might well ask, as the people in today’s Gospel did: “What must we do, to be doing the works of God” (Jn 6:28) as Stephen does? How do we tap into the power that has been given to us, the power of divine charity? Jesus answers: “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent” (Jn 6:29). So, if we want to see God’s power at work in our lives, we need to believe.
Because God does not work against our will but with us; his grace builds upon and perfects our human nature. So, belief, faith, is not purely a work of God. Rather, belief involves both God and Man; it a human act, a free choice and decision, made in co-operation with God’s grace (cf CCC §§153-155). As St Thomas says, more precisely: “believing is [a human] act of the intellect assenting to the divine truth by command of the will moved by God through grace”. There is a fine balance here of grace and nature. For although we can do nothing at all without the grace of faith, which is a gift of the Holy Spirit, it is also true that even after the gift is given, we must be open to God’s grace and not resist it. As our Collect for today says, we must “[put] off our old self with all its ways”, and, so, freely choose to “live as Christ did”. It is thus that we co-operate with grace; this is what it means to believe in Christ.
So, conscious of the many times we fail in this, and aware that without God’s grace to help us we can do nothing, let us pray these words from St Mark’s Gospel: “[Lord] I believe; help my unbelief” (Mk 9:24b).
The Resurrection is a new beginning, and so, today’s Gospel is like a flashback. We’re back at the beginning by the sea of Tiberias in Galilee and Simon Peter, James, John, and others are there fishing; just as it was when Jesus first called them to follow him. And they did, and what a journey it had been. But the disciples did not follow Jesus all the way to the Cross; they fled, except for John and the women. And so, with the shame of having failed their friend, perhaps it seemed to the disciples that they should just return to their former way of life; back to the beginning when they were simple fishermen; back to a time before Jesus.
But once we’ve encountered God, there is no turning back. Once we’ve been chosen and claimed by Jesus as his own, called his friends, there is no renunciation of that. For as St Paul put it: “we may be unfaithful but God is always faithful, for he cannot disown his own self” (2 Tim 2:3). And so, if we’ve failed or gone astray or fled in fear, there is always Christ’s forgiveness which releases us from guilt and embarrassment; always a new beginning to re-affirm our love for Christ and to choose to follow him again; always a resurrection from the brokenness and deadliness of our former choices if we turn again to the Lord.
It’s not accidental that the one disciple who recognizes Jesus is St John, who had remained under the Cross, and heard the Lord say: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Lk 23:34). So, now, when the disciples, not knowing what they do, return to their old occupation and fail to catch a single fish, Jesus’ forgiveness comes in the form of a great catch of fish, and John at once recognizes it for what it is. And he recognizes, too, who is the source of such divine mercy and forgiveness. This is an experience of new life and the resurrection. So, just as in the beginning, when Jesus chose them as his own and called them to be “fishers of Men” (cf Lk 5:1-12), so, now, “just as day was breaking” (Jn 21:4), there is a new beginning. Jesus renews his choice and his call, and the sign of this renewal and forgiveness is a miraculous catch of one hundred and fifty-three fish, as St John realizes.
There has been much speculation over the precision of this number, and many have sought to give it an esoteric symbolic meaning. But it may well just be that there was a catch of one hundred and fifty-three “large fish” (Jn 21:11), and as any fisherman knows, especially if you make a living from them, every single fish counts. The fact that the evangelist was able to be so specific about the number of fish may serve as a kind of proof for what he says at the end of this chapter: “This is the disciple who is bearing witness to these things” (Jn 21:24). He is an eye-witness; he was there, and he can testify to just how many fish they’d caught.
However, there is probably more to it than just that.
St Luke’s sequel to his Gospel, the Acts of the Apostles, is told with great momentum and energy. Because the main protagonist, although often invisible, is the Holy Spirit who inspires the first Christians. From the very beginning until today, it is the Spirit who directs the apostolic activities of the Church, and no physical obstacle or material barrier can constrain or imprison the Gospel and our faith. This is the witness that the apostles gave, and we still see this Spirit-filled hope and faith in our persecuted brothers and sisters around the world; in those Christians, too, who are in prison.
fr Timothy Radcliffe OP tells, for example, of the lay Dominican fraternity in a prison in Massachusetts, USA who are “preachers of hope” and joy in “a dark place”. And Cardinal Onaiyekan recounts a visit to a dismal and dirty prison in Nigeria where he suddenly heard singing, and in the gloom he saw the prisoners all had rosaries around their necks. “How come you are all Christians in here, he asked, a little taken aback, since Nigeria is fairly evenly divided between Christians and Muslims? Many of us were Muslims, he was told, but when we saw the Christians singing – even in a place like this – we asked for the secret of their joy and discovered how Jesus can bring peace out of even the deepest places of pain and suffering”. This is surely an experience of the resurrection, of Easter joy and hope, of new life coming from the tomb. So, those who are imprisoned, condemned by the world to sit in darkness, are nevertheless made truly free. Because, following the promptings of grace, of God’s angel, as it were, they believe in Christ, and so, “should not perish but have eternal life” (Jn 3:16b).
But although God’s Spirit and his Gospel is not constrained by physical bars and jails, it can be blocked by our human freedom, by spiritual barriers, so to speak. What I mean is that we can choose to refuse God’s grace, to decide not to believe. This is an obstinacy of the will and intellect that prefers, as the Gospel says, sin and “darkness rather than the light” (Jn 3:19).
But God never fails to knock at the door of our heart, sending countless actual graces, opportunities to repent, to be converted, to grow in understanding and love of his Word. His angel stands before the prisons we build for ourselves and says: “Go and stand in the temple and speak to the people all the words of this Life”. God’s Spirit comes to set us free by his grace, beckons us to faith in Christ, to hope in his mercy, and to rise from the darkness to live a new life in the light of the Risen Lord.
The Vietnamese Cardinal Van Thuan who was imprisoned for thirteen years once said, “You may tremble with fear, you may stumble and fall, you might meet with difficulties, misunderstandings, criticisms, disgrace, perhaps even a death sentence. But why forget the Gospel? Our Lord Jesus Christ suffered everything. If you continue to follow him, you will also have your Easter”. Thus, every day, when God renews his graces to us and his angel calls us forward into the light, let us freely choose each time to rise, and to follow him. By co-operating with God’s grace, we enjoy new life in Christ the Living One.
One of the practical tasks of Holy Week is to find people who will agree to have their feet washed on Maundy Thursday. And the irony is that those who agree will often wash their feet with perfumed soap before coming to Mass that evening! Why? Because they whole community is going to see them!
But if we think about it, there is something odd about having one’s feet washed during a meal; after all, we don’t eat with our feet. And, so, too we don’t often have our feet anointed, and certainly not with precious sweet ointment; it’s typically the hands and face – the visible parts which we show to others – that are anointed. So, foot anointing and foot washing, these two events that frame Holy Week, are unusual; they’re done for a symbolic purpose.
The latter, we know, is a sign of Christ’s humility and service, bending low for our salvation, even as low as death on a Cross. And the former, the anointing of the feet by Mary of Bethany, as St John tells us, looks to Christ’s death because it is only in death that one’s feet would be anointed. But it also looks beyond the Cross to the resurrection. For Jesus then says: “You do not always have me” (Jn 12:8b). And these words, I think, echo the words of the Risen Lord to another Mary, spoken in the Easter garden: “Do not hold to me…” (Jn 20:17a)
So, the anointing of Christ’s feet with costly nard points to the Resurrection – its fragrance which fills the whole house is an anticipation of the fragrance of the Easter garden; of the sweetness of Christ’s resurrection filling the whole ‘house’ of the Church which is like the house of Martha, Mary and Lazarus, a house of prayer, loving service and of those raised from the death of sin. The costliness of this gesture of anointing with nard is a mere glimpse at how much it cost Christ to redeem us from sin and death, and the extravagance of the gesture dimly mirrors the extravagance of God’s love. Judas, of course, does not understand Mary’s gesture because such prodigal love, such an outpouring for the Other, cannot be understood by unrepentant sinners. Rather, it is the repentant and the forgiven who understand – or maybe, just accept and rejoice in – God’s effusive love. Hence Christ said in St Luke’s version of today’s Gospel: “he who is forgiven little, loves little” (Lk 7:47b).
As we come to the final week of our penitential season, let us recall again God’s generosity and goodness; recall our many sins, but also how readily and for how very much God has forgiven us. The Lord stoops down and washes not only our feet but our whole humanity of our sins. Will we respond as Mary does, gratefully anointing Christ with our love?