Love’s Fragrance

thumbnail35I love you, O Lord, my strength…my rock, and my fortress, and my deliverer.  (Ps. 18:1,2)

The light of God’s face shines in all its beauty on the countenance of Jesus Christ….Christ is “the way, and the truth, and the life” (John 14:6).  Consequently the decisive answer to every one of man’s questions, his religious and moral questions in particular, is given by Jesus Christ, or rather is Jesus Christ himself.     Bd. John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor

In John 12:1-11, as the intense fragrance of pure nard fills the room where Jesus is, we hear again words of criticism towards Mary, similar to those we hear from her own sister in Luke 10:38-42. And again, Jesus himself defends Mary, this time describing what she is doing as a gesture of anointing of his body ahead of time for a burial which he knew would not last long!  “…You do not always have me,” Jesus tells those who are critical.  St. Thomas Aquinas cites Chrysostom as teaching that “our Lord was rebuking Judas when he said this: for by being annoyed that this respect was shown to Christ, he seemed to consider Christ’s presence as a burden.  So Christ said, ‘You do not always have me.’  This was like saying, I am a burden to you; but wait awhile, and I will be leaving.”  No doubt Judas, a thief, also found the fragrance filling the house something unbearable;  see IICor.2:15,16  to get a full sense of what is happening, here.

There are three related passages involving this extravagant, love-filled gesture in John 12.  Matt 26:6-13, Mark 14:3-9, and Luke 7:37-39 are well worth a careful reading, noticing both similarities and differences in the narratives.  You will notice three different incidents described in the four gospels, because of the details of place and the woman’s critics in each incident.  Some scholars will discount these differences, supposing a confusion arising from various verbal traditions, but St. Thomas tells us that Jerome, Chrysostom, Origen and others believe that there are different women performing this gesture in the different circumstances described.  On the other hand, both Augustine and Gregory see these combined accounts as two instances and “claim that the four evangelists are speaking of one and the same woman, but that she anointed our Lord twice.  The first time mentioned by Luke, was at the beginning of her conversion…The second time…was a few days before Christ’s passion.”

This last possibility is a new one to my mind, and it is interesting that it should come from St. Augustine, whose own early life and conversion paralleled that of a Mary who had been a rather notorious sinner before her transformation in response to Christ’s love took place.  We see this in Augustine’s famous Confessions.

To my mind, it is a good thing to listen to the various quoted responses of Jesus in the three synoptic gospels when we look at Mary in John 12, because all of those responses of his, taken together, give us a rich sense of God’s mercy toward and even appreciation of this controversial gesture of love:  “Your sins are forgiven…” (Luke 7); “She has done what she could…” (Mark 14); “Wherever this gospel is preached in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her” (Matt. 26)  And in reading John 12, especially,  we now realize that if Mary had not performed this truly extravagant act of love, we today would not have Jesus’ definitive teaching about the importance of balance, of using our material resources for gestures related to personal love, reverence, and worship, instead of using all of our gifts and energies exclusively for feeding and clothing the poor, whom we will always have with us.  What Jesus said helps us to think through, as well, our attitude toward the poor, and not to neglect all of their human needs, those of body, soul and spirit.  In respecting these needs of theirs we become aware of our own neediness, even though we may not be materially poor.

There is something interesting about verse 3 of this chapter, and that is the fact that Mary used her hair for the anointing of Jesus’ feet.  St. Thomas sees this as devotion that makes an offering of one’s very self, citing Romans 6:13:  “Yield your members to God as instruments of righteousness.”  He tells us that St. Augustine was of the opinion that, because the hair is produced from what is superfluous in the body, one dries the Lord’s feet with (one’s) hair when one gives to a neighbor out of one’s surplus:  “Give that which remains as alms” (Luke 11:41).  St. Thomas quotes Augustine:  “If you have a surplus of anything, give it to the poor and you have dried the feet of the Lord.”

St. Thomas also has a comment that is worth passing on to you concerning whether Mary knew ahead of time that she was actually anointing Christ’s body for burial.  He says, “But did she have foreknowledge of Christ’s death?  Not at all: for she did not understand what she was doing.  Rather, she was moved to do it by a certain inner urge.  It often happens that people are moved to do things that they do not understand…” (and he cites Caiphas’ prophecy, which we spoke about earlier)…”Things of this sort are called presages, because they take place before the event.”

Finally, in verses 9 and 10, we have the great question of Judas, and cannot help asking ourselves, why would Jesus call Judas into such intimacy with him and the other eleven, even giving him charge over the money box, when the Lord obviously knew Judas’ mind and heart very well?  (See Psalm 41:10, Isaiah 32:6, IICor. 2:15, IICor. 11:14, and Proverbs 12:10).  This is something to ponder for awhile, in relation to the situations we confront with people who seems to be planted in the house of the Lord as weeds rather than as fruit bearing trees.  What might Jesus be communicating to his future Church by his allowing Judas to remain among the disciples for so long?

Another question which comes to mind when we see Judas’ and the Pharisees’ blind and negative reactions to Jesus’ various miracles:  What IS this undeniable capacity which human beings have to deny, explain away, or simply ignore God’s revelations and miracles?  “…Believe the works!” Jesus pleads, when he recognizes the understandable human doubts about his own person and claims.  In one of his famous parables (Luke 16:19-31) he has Father Abraham telling a rich sinner who calls to him after death from the other side of the chasm which separates the sinner from heaven and asking Abraham to go to his brothers still on earth and warn them that eternal life and judgment are quite real:  “If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.”  Mark Shea, in a May 12 National Catholic Register blog post, confronts this very question in speaking of atheist Christopher Hitchens.  He says that Hitchens “responded to claims of the miraculous by condemning pilgrimages…Why are the healings at Lourdes or the Miracle of the Sun (at Fatima) not front page news and the subject of countless investigative reports?  Why did not…Hitchens spend his life trying to find out if they happened?  Answer:  because his heart, mind, and soul had no room to so much as consider taking them seriously.”

Sounds like the same heart trouble that was killing Judas and the Pharisees in John’s gospel, no?

I must say I am happy that I have two more Friday posts in which to give you things to ponder related to the rest of John 12 before our next Faith On the Ferry on Wed., June 5,  because it is such a full and rich chapter.   Have a wonderful Pentecost! Veni, Sancte Spiritus!   JC