[This article will appear later this month in our monastery newsletter, but I thought I’d publish it here now for your Lenten edification. You can’t wait too long to enter into what Lent is all about!]
“When Jesus was at Bethany, in the house of Simon the leper, a woman came up to him with an alabaster jar of very costly oil, and she poured it on his head… Jesus said to them… ‘she has done a beautiful thing to me… In pouring this oil on my body, she has done it to prepare me for burial… wherever this gospel is preached in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her’” (Mt. 26:6-13).
“She has done a beautiful thing,” said the Lord. In what does this “beautiful thing” consist? Jesus mentions explicitly his preparation for burial, for this lavish anointing happened shortly before his Passion. But the beauty of what she did was not only in the symbolic gesture of preparation—of which the woman herself may not have been consciously or completely aware—but in the love and the sacrifice that inspired this act of devotion. This is important for us, since we cannot literally anoint the body of Jesus for burial, but there is much we can do to sacrificially express our love and devotion.
This unnamed woman spent a lot of money, probably more than she could afford, to purchase this expensive oil. It would have been a great sacrifice on her part, but she evidently felt that nothing was too good for her Lord and Master. Not only was the cost of the oil an extravagance, the application of it was as well. For she didn’t merely anoint Jesus with it, she poured it out lavishly over his head. (There must have been more than one such anointing, for we hear from the Gospel of John that in the same town but in a different house, Mary, the sister of Lazarus, anointed Jesus’ feet with fragrant and costly oil.)
What caught my attention was the image of pouring out the oil, sparing nothing, which is a symbol of the complete gift of one’s love, one’s self. We find in the Gospel of the Passion one great contrast, and two great comparisons, with this generous outpouring of love. First we will look at the contrast.
Judas is the opposite of love generously poured out. St John indicates that it was he who complained of the extravagance of the woman’s gift, on the pretext that the money could have been spent more sensibly on the poor. He then commented that Judas was a thief and wanted to receive that money in the common purse only in order to use it for himself (Jn. 12:4-6). It may well be that greed was only one element of a more complex reason for Judas’ betrayal of Jesus, but the fact is that he sold out his Master for the price of a runaway slave. The woman who anointed Jesus spared no expense to lavish her love upon Him, and the tight-fisted disciple didn’t even dicker with the chief priests over the pittance they offered for the blood of the Son of God. The Byzantine Offices of Holy Week make much of this contrast. But let’s not waste any more time on the betrayer.
Shortly after the woman poured out her love as fragrant oil over the head of Jesus, the Passover arrived, and Jesus gathered his disciples for this unique event in the history of the world, the one which He “desired with great desire” to share with them. It was unique because it was the moment of the establishment of the New and Everlasting Covenant, to be made perpetually present in his Church in the form of the Holy Eucharist. He gave them bread and miraculously transformed it by his own divine words, saying: “This is my body.” What I’m most interested in for the purpose of this reflection is what he said over the cup of wine, which He also transformed by his words: “This is my blood of the new covenant, which is poured out for many, for the forgiveness of sins.” As if in response to the devotion of the woman who poured out her love upon him in the form of costly oil, Jesus promises to pour out his love upon all of us in the form of his Precious Blood, the most costly gift of all.
Jesus was inviting his disciples, as He invites all disciples of all times, to share in the banquet of his outpoured love in the Holy Eucharist. He is like the lover in the Song of Songs (5:1), inviting us: “Eat, O friends, and drink; drink deeply, O lovers!” [or, “drink deeply of love!”] When we eat and drink the Body and Blood of the Lord, we are partaking of his love poured out for us for the forgiveness of our sins. We proclaim his death and resurrection and we give thanks for his inexpressible gift.
Returning for a moment to the woman who anointed Jesus: was she perhaps herself reading the Song of Songs before she poured out her costly oil upon Him? “Your anointing oils are fragrant, your name is oil poured out; therefore the maidens love you” (Songs 1:3). “Christ” means “anointed,” so his very name is oil poured out, and perhaps by anointing Him the woman was also implicitly expressing her faith in Jesus as the Messiah, the Christ, the Anointed One of the Father.
The offering of Himself at the Last Supper was but the beginning of Jesus’ total outpouring of his love for our salvation. In the Garden of Gethsemane He poured out bloody sweat in his indescribable anguish over the impossible burden of sin and suffering his Father was asking Him to bear. His deep disappointment and grief were poured out as Judas approached to betray Him, and as the rest of his disciples “forsook him and fled” (Mt. 26:56). This is what He received from the men he personally chose and taught, and before whose eyes He had worked astounding miracles: betrayal, denial, and abandonment in the hour of his greatest distress.
As his Passion continued, his blood was poured out again and again: the scourging, the crowning with thorns, the carrying of the Cross, and the crucifixion. Finally came the most dramatic outpouring, when his sacrifice was at length consummated: “One of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once there came out blood and water. He who saw it has born witness, and his testimony is true” (Jn. 19:34-35). The gentle and humble Heart, the Heart that was moved with pity for the hungry and weary crowds, the Heart that is the fount of the grace of the Holy Spirit (Jn. 7:38), the Heart that was sorrowful unto death in the garden: this Heart was pierced so that Blood and Water would pour out, symbols of the sacraments of our salvation, Eucharist and Baptism. But the Heart of Jesus was pierced, as it were, throughout his life, for his love and compassion were poured out to all who came to Him with their needs and their sorrows. Having loved his own, says St John, He loved them to the end (Jn. 13:1), to the utmost, to the extremity of the Cross. And there, said Jesus, “It is finished.”
Yet He is never finished pouring out his grace and love upon us, and it behooves us to pour out love in return. Our love ought first to be based on gratitude, when we begin to realize how much Jesus loved us. For once we realize the gravity of our sin and what it cost Him to forgive it, we become aware that his love has no bounds. No one likes to talk about Hell these days, but it seems to me that if we don’t know just what we’ve been saved from, we will not appreciate sufficiently the gift the Lord has granted us. He knows what Hell is, and He suffered immeasurably so that we would not have to go there as the just sentence for our sinful deeds. We do not seem to realize the endless horrors and torments we are preparing for ourselves by blithely disregarding the saving commandments of the Lord, but we must know the lengths to which He went to save us. Our meditations on the Passion of Jesus should not only get us to grieve over his unjust condemnation and brutal execution, but they should confront us squarely with the realization that He freely endured all of that so that we, who were heedlessly offending Him, would not have to pay the eternal price for it. No greater love has any man than that which Christ manifested to us as He poured out his lifeblood on the Cross, innocently, for the sake of the guilty.
To be continued…