Monday of Holy Week (Isaiah 42:1-7; Psalm 26(27):1-3, 13-15; John 12:1-11)
The anointing at Bethany is received differently all four Gospels. Mark (14:3-9), Matthew (26:6-13) and John place it before the Last Supper while Luke tells a very similar story much earlier in his Gospel (7:36-50). In the Synoptic Gospels, both the woman and those who complain are nameless. John’s Gospel, by contrast, creatively identifies the woman as Mary, the sister of Lazarus and Martha, and names the complainer as Judas. John offers no account of the payment of Judas but perhaps the 300 denarii are a late, inflated echo of the 30 silver pieces.
By means of such deft editing, the writer creates a truly powerful scene, contrasting not only love and betrayal but also life and death. In his roundabout way, the evangelist takes us to the very heart of Holy Week. The cross is no mere miscarriage of justice or a tragic judicial murder. On the contrary, we are invited to behold nothing less than the struggle between good and evil, personified in Mary and Judas.
In all the darkness, there is a glint of hope signalled by the ointment. In our story of the first anointing, the quality matters: the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. At the end of the passion narrative in John there is an anointing before the burial by men (in flat contradiction of Mark 16:1). In the second anointing, the quantity is the key: a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds (19:39). The contrast between the two anointings, however, is only apparent. Mary anoints Jesus on account of her love for him. Joseph and Nicodemus use “myrrh and aloes”, a pairing associated only with marriage symbolism in the Old Testament (Psalm 45:8; Proverbs 7:17 and Song 4:14; significantly, nard is found only in the Song of Songs 1:12; 4:13–14). Thus the story of Jesus’ last days is framed by eloquent, even sensual symbols of love — love which proves victorious over the forces of evil, appalling betrayal and even death itself.