"What she has done will be told in remembrance of her."
Once again, it is Holy Week. As often happens at this point in the liturgical year, I feel acutely aware of the challenge of finding a contemplative space at a very busy time; this time is busy on account of academic projects that tend to pile up at this point in the calendar, but it's additionally busy for me as a priest called upon to lead services and to hear confessions during the days of Holy Week and the Paschal Triduum. As I observed five years ago, it can be tempting for people in ministry to view the Triduum as "another damn thing," a pile of practical tasks and responsibilities added to an already busy schedule. What I wrote then remains true today: for one who works through the Triduum, praying through the Triduum can seem an elusive goal.
As part of my effort to prepare spiritually for the Triduum, I spent some time earlier this week praying with the various Gospel accounts of the Passion. As I did this, I was newly struck by a detail that the Evangelists Mark and Matthew both record in their accounts of the anointing of Jesus at Bethany (Mk 14:3-9, Mt 26:6-13). After an unnamed woman anoints Jesus with precious spikenard, provoking the ire of some observers who see her gesture as wastefully extravagant, Jesus defends the "beautiful thing" done by the woman and makes this statement: "Truly I tell you, wherever the Gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her" (Mt 26:13, cf. Mk 14:9).
The anointing of Christ is recounted in all four of the Gospels, but the details of the event differ somewhat in each Evangelist's telling. Luke sets himself apart from the other three by setting the event not at Bethany but in "a Pharisee's house" (Lk 7:36) and by describing the woman as a notorious public sinner (Lk 7:37, 47). John is unique in identifying the woman as Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus (Jn 12:3), and tradition has often presented her as Mary Magdalene. Absent from Luke and John but found in Matthew and Mark is the insistence of Jesus that "what she has done will be told in remembrance of her."
What is it about the actions of this woman that should be remembered "wherever the Gospel is proclaimed in the whole world"? Part of the answer lies in the sheer lavishness of her devotion; some accounts note that a few witnesses were scandalized at the apparent waste of costly perfume, suggesting that it should have been sold to benefit the poor (Mt 26:9; Mk 14:5; Jn 12:5). One hears an echo of such attitudes today in the voices of some who wrongly argue that concern for beauty in church architecture and sacred liturgy is an affront to the poor. On the contrary, those who are materially poor often have a heightened appreciation for the beauty of the sacred. In this regard, I sometimes think of the Latin inscription chiseled above the entrance of a splendid old church in the city where I was born: Aedificarunt Domino opifices Sancti Antonii, which can be translated, "The workers of Saint Anthony [parish] built [this church] for the Lord." In much the same way that a humble woman felt moved to anoint Jesus with costly perfume, the desire to do something beautiful for God moved a community of poor French Canadian immigrants in a small city in New England to construct a magnificent temple.
In his enyclical Ecclesia de Eucharistia, St. John Paul II described how the anointing at Bethany can be seen to represent the care which Christians should have for the sacred liturgy. "Like the woman who anointed Jesus in Bethany," he wrote, "the Church has feared no 'extravagance,' devoting the best of her resources to expressing her wonder and adoration before the unsurpassable gift of the Eucharist. No less than the first disciples charged with preparing the 'large upper room,' she has felt the need, down the centuries and in her encounters with different cultures, to celebrate the Eucharist in a setting worthy of so great a mystery." Given this, we can better see "how the faith of the Church in the mystery of the Eucharist has found historical expression not only in the demand for an interior disposition of devotion, but also in outward forms meant to evoke and emphasize the grandeur of the event being celebrated." Whether we associate her with St. Mary Magdalene, with St. Mary of Bethany, or with another person whose name we cannot know, the woman who anointed Jesus at Bethany may be remembered as a patron for all who have exercised special care for the form of divine worship.
In praising the actions of the woman who anointed him, Jesus also presents her as an example to be imitated. Noting the extravagant care that she lavished upon the person of Jesus, we are invited to reflect upon our own care for Christ as he comes to us in the Eucharist and in the liturgical services of the Church. Do we receive him with affection and with reverence, unafraid to show our devotion in ways that others may fail to appreciate? May those of us who take part in the services of the Paschal Triduum find in these sacred rites an opportunity to grow in the love that moved the woman of Bethany to an act of profound adoration. In a special way, may those of us for whom this is a very busy time - particularly the clergy - increase our devotion to the One who has called us to service. AMDG.