Hebdomada Sancta

by Fr. John Henry Hanson, O.Praem.


Between Palm Sunday’s passion account of St. Matthew and the sorrow and betrayal of the remainder of Holy Week, we have today a beautiful interlude. A fragrance fills the house at Bethany and the entire Church today. This “costly perfumed oil” accomplishes what a pleasing fragrance is supposed to accomplish: it attracts attention; it makes everyone think of love and devotion; it pleases. Even if those at table weren’t prepared to have their dinner interrupted by all of these beautiful associations, yet everyone is compelled to think about what they both smell and see.

Mary’s perfumed ointment gets everyone talking. Everyone has an opinion. And there are mixed reviews.

It would be interesting to hear what each of us sees in this scene. We know what Judas thinks about it. He interpreted this extravagant outpouring as a complete waste. It seems that he even got some of the other disciples to chime in as well: “But when the disciples saw it, they were indignant, saying, ‘Why this waste?’” (Mt 26:8). Jesus sees pure beauty in it: “But Jesus said, ‘Let her alone; why do you trouble her? She has done a beautiful thing to Me’” (Mk 14:6). This verse, although not recorded by St. John’s account, is recorded by both Matthew and Mark in their account of the anointing at Bethany, indicating how deeply Mary’s gesture touched our Lord’s heart, His priestly heart. Why? What was so beautiful about it?

As the Lord looks down on Mary performing this very careful and reverent ritual, He sees Himself. Jesus sees Himself reflected in her outpouring. He has found someone, one of a very few, who really understands what it means for Jesus Christ to be who He is. His own self-emptying was just like this: Christ although He was rich became poor. Christ although He was in the form of God emptied Himself and took the form of a servant. And St. Paul speaks of the “aroma” and the “fragrance” of Christ spreading everywhere by the preaching of the Gospel.

Mary understood Jesus better than anyone else in that room—certainly better than those who objected. To imitate the Lord is to pour yourself out in priestly fashion. What Mary sees in Jesus is her priest, her Savior, the One Who had saved her. And she repays His love in a way that she knows He will appreciate.

In the face of such beauty it is not in any way inappropriate for the Son of God to say to everyone there: Close your mouths. Have a look at some real beauty for a change. See what real love looks like for change. Take in the aroma: it is scent put to its highest, best, and most proper use. Remember how I told you that the beauty of the Temple’s façade, its costly adornments, will all be thrown down. But her beauty will never die. The beauty of her gesture will never die.

That the Lord praises her love and prophesies that wherever the Gospel is preached this story will be told as a part of that Gospel couldn’t give us a stronger indication of its importance. Does He make such a promise about anyone else? It is not simply a charming vignette; it is an integral part of the Gospel itself. For it illustrates clearer than almost anything else what our relationship with Jesus is supposed to look like: outpouring meets outpouring, abyss calls to abyss. Or I think of some lines from St. John of the Cross: “Oh, how sweet your presence will be to me, you who are the supreme good! I must draw near you in silence and uncover your feet that you may be pleased to unite me to you in marriage [Ru. 3:7], and I will not rest until I rejoice in your arms. Now I ask you, Lord, not to abandon me at any time in my recollection, for I am a squanderer of my soul.” Or the Song of Songs: “While the king was at his repose, my flowering spikenard gave forth its fragrance [Sg. 1:12].

What the apostles did on their first missions in Galilee is left largely unrecorded. This is not. This gets detail, commentary, and promotion. This gets the approval and endorsement of the Son of God. Our Lord sees a love whose story will be told and retold until the end of time: “Truly, I say to you, wherever this gospel is preached in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her” (Mt 26:13). Today, this is once again fulfilled in our hearing.

Could Mary have imagined that at the top of a steep driveway, just off of a road named after a bull, in a county called Orange, in a monastery called by St Michael’s name, in a church practically empty because of a pandemic, with rain coming down, she would be remembered, proclaimed, preached, and cherished? It never would have entered the mind of one so absorbed in the love of God. But Jesus knew. Jesus saw us then as we are today: fulfilling His word in a most unexpected way. But my God! what a beautiful thing it is.

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