There, they made him a supper; Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at table with him. May took a pound of costly ointment of pure nard and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair; and the house was filled with the fragrance of the ointment. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (he who was to betray him), said, “Why was this ointment not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?”
John 12: 2-5
The closing events of the public ministry of Jesus begin, in John’s gospel, with the story of Jesus’ return to the house of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. Once again it is Martha who is serving at table with Lazarus, whom Jesus had raised from the dead, being present as well. As earlier, it is Mary who continues to sit at Jesus’ feet but this time she also lavishly anoints Jesus’ feet with costly ointment. Finally, there is Judas, who hypocritically, since he has already stolen money from the common purse, questions the wastefulness of the money spent on the ointment with which Mary anoints Jesus’ feet, for, he claims, it could have been “given to the poor.”
The gospel writer emphasizes the extravagance of Mary’s gesture. She takes “a pound of pure nard and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair; and the house was filled with the fragrance of the ointment.” It is the “fragrance” of the love of Mary as “poured out” in this gesture that fills the house. There is the service of Martha that, of course, makes the supper possible; there is the evil and hypocrisy of Judas, an evil that attempts to diminish and even ridicule the act of love of Mary; yet, it is the love of Mary that pervades the atmosphere.
As we are drawn into the narrative of Holy Week and of the passion and death of Jesus, the gospel powerfully reminds us of the love at the heart of all that is to occur. It is love which has brought Jesus into the world to serve it, and it is love of the Father and of the world that leads him to lay down his life. Finally, it is love that will prevail in the end, for it is stronger than the strength of our compulsion and forgetfulness and even of the forces of evil and darkness.
All of us know the desire we feel, when animated by love, to bestow extravagantly on the one we love. We are not at such times counting the cost as Judas does. We are not distracted by all the other things that “we have to do” as Martha is. We are rather single minded and single hearted in our desire to express our sense of the inestimable value of the one we love, to act out our devotion and commitment to them and their well being. When we are truly in love we do not measure out or calculate the financial or personal cost to ourselves but rather find our joy in giving all we have, and even more, to the beloved. At such moments we share, albeit briefly and partially, in the self-emptying that Jesus shows in the events of the coming week.
If we live, however, in the narcissistic entitlement of Judas or even the compulsive or willful sense of duty of Martha, those around us will never know the fragrance of love and devotion. It is love that changes the environment. Too often our communities or families are places where we all try to be good and work very hard to do our duty, but where real love is rare or absent. As Martha, we tire ourselves out trying to attain a sense of worth or goodness by dint of will, or as Judas we attempt to inflate ourselves or cover over our own sinfulness by criticism and gossip, by shaming and humiliating others in their unique expressions of love. The air we breathe is not filled with the fragrance of love and mercy but rather of frustration, compulsion, and envy. it is only by love and in love that Jesus is able to take up his cross and finish his work, and it is only by love and in love that we can truly share in that work.
In the former English translation of the Second Eucharistic Prayer, we prayed: “Make us grow in love.” With each new day, may we offer this prayer that God may touch our hearts and our wills so as to increasingly transform them in love. As St. Paul wrote: “If I give away all that I posses, piece by piece, and if I even let them take my body to burn it, but am without love, it will do me no good whatever.” (1 Cor. 13: 3) It is in and through our love for each other that the fragrance of God’s love will fill our world, the house of God.
As we can see in Sacred Scripture, mercy is a key word that indicates God’s action towards us. He does not limit himself merely to affirming his love, but makes it visible and tangible. Love, after all, can never be just an abstraction. By its very nature, it indicates something concrete: intentions, attitudes, and behaviours that are shown in daily living. The mercy of God is his loving concern for each one of us. He feels responsible; that is, he desires our wellbeing and he wants to see us happy, full of joy, and peaceful. This is the path which the merciful love of Christians must also travel. As the Father loves, so do his children. Just as he is merciful, so we are called to be merciful to each other.
Mercy is the very foundation of the Church’s life. All of her pastoral activity should be caught up in the tenderness she makes present to believers; nothing in her preaching and in her witness to the world can be lacking in mercy. The Church’s very credibility is seen in how she shows merciful and compassionate love. The Church “has an endless desire to show mercy”. Perhaps we have long since forgotten how to show and live the way of mercy. The temptation, on the one hand, to focus exclusively on justice made us forget that this is only the first, albeit necessary and indispensable step. But the Church needs to go beyond and strive for a higher and more important goal. On the other hand, sad to say, we must admit that the practice of mercy is waning in the wider culture. In some cases the word seems to have dropped out of use. However, without a witness to mercy, life becomes fruitless and sterile, as if sequestered in a barren desert. The time has come for the Church to take up the joyful call to mercy once more. It is time to return to the basics and to bear the weaknesses and struggles of our brothers and sisters. Mercy is the force that reawakens us to new life and instils in us the courage to look to the future with hope.
Pope Francis, Misericordiae Vultus, 9-10