"Leave her alone. Let her keep this for the day of my burial" (John 12:11).
Today's Gospel repeats the story told yesterday at the beginning of Mark's Passion account. John changes the setting -- from the house of Simon the Leper in Bethany to the house of Lazarus, whom Jesus just raised from the dead in the previous Chapter 11. Mark's anonymous woman becomes Mary, sister of Lazarus and Martha. The extravagant show of love with perfumed oil and tears is the same, as is the complaint of the disciples about the waste of money.
The story is important for Holy Week in at least two respects. The anointing of Jesus' feet indicates that the woman, of all the disciples, is the only one who knows that Jesus is going to die. She weeps over him and, figuratively, pours out her heart for him. Second, she gives Jesus the gesture of love he will repeat in John 13 at the Last Supper. Like Mary, Jesus will kneel and wash the feet of his disciples to teach them to love and serve each other as he has loved them.
The extravagance of this sign is so great that John does not need to include the institution of the Eucharist at his Last Supper, as the other three evangelists do. Jesus' gift of himself is powerfully demonstrated in this act of humble service. In most parishes, we will have an opportunity to wash one another’s feet on Holy Thursday.
The dinner at the house of Lazarus is a celebration of Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem and the dramatic show of power in Jesus’ cleansing of the temple. Though Jesus has repeatedly told his apostles what will happen to him at Passover, they are filled with visions of him as messiah and of themselves as his lieutenants. Only Mary understands that Jesus is about to fulfill his role as God’s servant by offering up his life. Mary will remain with Jesus throughout his passion, and she will be the first to witness him alive on Easter morning. Because love triumphs over all else, Mary will be the apostle to the apostles.
As we enter Holy Week, the same lesson is clear. Only love will grasp the meaning of the events that will unfold this week. Only an open heart, its seal broken and its intimate gift poured out, will be a response sufficient to carry us through the death and resurrection of Jesus. Only our own journey through his death to new life with him will enable us to really witness the good news to others. Only by loving each other as Jesus loves us will we be recognized as his followers.