Cambridge, MA. There are many ways to interpret the great and solemn events of Holy Thursday, and preachers around the world take up different themes, ranging from the spiritual to the ecclesial to the political. I was privileged to preach at this year’s Holy Thursday liturgy in my parish, and I was struck by a simple point, obvious once you finally notice it: John 13 follows John 12; Jesus washes the feet of his disciples only a few days after Mary (not the Magdalene but sister of Martha) anointed his feet with a costly and fragrant perfume.
The scene at the Last Supper is memorable and familiar: “And during supper Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him…” (John 13) John sees this unprecedented action — not a traditional part of the sacred meal — as expressive of Jesus’ unlimited, unfathomable love — “to the end” the ultimate reach — and also as an instruction in the way the community is to live, serving one another in the same way.
But it is, I think, also his more intimate and personal response to and imitation of a powerful scene recorded in the previous chapter of the Gospel: “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.’” (John 12)
As he was loved, overwhelmingly and with abandon by Mary, Jesus learned an extravagant and unbounded way to express, as it were sacramentally, his love for those gathered at table. He had no precious perfume, his hair was not long enough, perhaps, that he could have used it for the drying, but still, he knelt as did Mary, did the humble and unexpected act, as did Mary.
In both scenes, Judas disrupts the moment. At Mary’s house, he is scandalized at the lavishness of this inappropriate display, and at the prospect of losing all that money. At the Last Supper, he is perhaps disturbed by so stark a manifestation of love — for his feet too are washed — and soon afterwards he rushes from the room, into the night. In Chapter 12, Jesus’ response to Judas defends Mary’s prodigality in light of his coming death, for the day of his burial; in Chapter 13, he admonishes Judas, “Do quickly what you are going to do.”
But we can in closing turn to the parallel scene in Mark, to catch the remarkable word of Jesus to the community on what this single woman has been able to do and what we should do in return: “She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial. Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.” (Mark 14)
Perhaps we should remember her every Holy Thursday, this woman too often missing from the Church's selective remembrance of its beginnings?