Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations. He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice. He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his teaching.
Thus says God, the Lord, who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and what comes from it, who gives breath to the people upon it and spirit to those who walk in it: I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.
Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus" feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, "Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?" (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, "Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me."
When the great crowd of the Jews learned that he was there, they came not only because of Jesus but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. So the chief priests planned to put Lazarus to death as well, since it was on account of him that many of the Jews were deserting and were believing in Jesus.
The impulsive, loving gesture done for Jesus by his close friend Miriam or Mary of Bethany (not the same as Mary Magdalene), is so inspirational that it's a wonder Christians have not made more of it in our liturgy. This woman, Miriam, may not yet have seen Jesus in the full light of prophecy, as "a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners who sit in darkness" (1st Reading), or indeed as the world's only Saviour, but she knew and loved him as a man of God, a fearless preacher of truth, love and fairness, and an extraordinary, compassionate healer of many, including herself. For this reason, she honoured and loved him and dared to show her love by that extravagant gesture of anointing him with perfumed oil, to which Judas so coldly objected. Rising to her defence, Jesus interprets her action as a preliminary anointing for his burial. "She bought it for the day of my burial." A little earlier, the Jewish high priest Caiaphas has declared that "One man must die for the nation," and a few verses later Jesus will speak of the need for the seed to die, in order to bear much fruit (Jn 12:24), and of his imminent "Lifting Up" so that he can draw all people to himself (12:32). Mary's impulsive act of loving generosity is thus given the status of a prophecy, preparing for his sacrificial death.
How strange that this iconic story is so relatively little known, and that it never received sacramental stature in the Church. Vatican teaching has been adamant that whatever kind of quasi-ministry may be implied in this act of anointing by Mary of Bethany, or in Mary Magdalene's later mission of announcing that Jesus was truly risen, does not constitute a basis for women to be ordained to priesthood. Perhaps that's why the Lord's apparently solemn and clear directive, in the parallel passage about Jesus being anointed by an unnamed woman in Bethany), that "Wherever this gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done shall be told, in memory of her" (Mt 26:13 is so little observed. Gospel texts such as these would seem to call us to reconsider what Jesus meant as ministry within his community, nothing to do with status and with power, and all to do with actual loving service.
We are at the beginning of Holy Week during which we reflect on the final journey of Jesus. Most of the people Jesus encountered on that final journey were hostile to him. Yet, according to today's gospel, six days before the feast of Passover during which Jesus was crucified, he experienced great kindness. Not only is he the guest at the table of a family that he loves, one member of that family, Mary, went to great expense to render him a very thoughtful service. She anointed his feet with very expensive perfume and dried them with her hair. A little later in the same gospel, Jesus washes the feet of his disciples. Mary, the sister of Lazarus, anticipates that servant gesture of Jesus himself. She gives herself to Jesus in a way that corresponds to how Jesus would give himself to his disciples, and to all of us. Jesus interprets Mary's action as preparing him for his death and burial. At the beginning of the last Week of his life, Jesus experienced great kindness from Mary of Bethany. What Mary did for Jesus we are called to do for each other. On our own journey through life, we may meet people who make our journey more difficult. We will also experience people like Mary who support us on our journey, and, hopefully, we can be for others what Mary was for Jesus, a kindly and generous presence in an often hostile world.