For us Christians, the story of the Passion, Death and Resurrection of Jesus represents the climax, not just of the earthly career of our Lord, but of all biblical revelation. The first part of this Passion story, without the Resurrection, is the gospel selection for this last Sunday of Lent.
It is impossible to comment on all the elements of this lengthy and incredibly rich gospel passage, and so I have decided to offer some thoughts on a little “story-within-the-story,” which is the anointing of Jesus by an unnamed woman at the very beginning of the narrative. At first glance, this episode appears to be completely irrelevant and we may be tempted to dismiss it until we read, at the end of the story, that it is indispensable to the Passion story itself: “…wherever the gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.”
This story is so important because it is related to the Passion of Jesus in the same way that a key signature is related to the music that follows. What this woman did, therefore, tells us how to read and understand the Passion of Jesus. Briefly stated, her seemingly extravagant anointing of Jesus represents, in microcosm, what Jesus himself is about to do for the whole world. Just as she breaks open the exquisite alabaster cruet and pours its precious and fragrant ointment on the head of Jesus in anticipation of his death and burial, so also Jesus will allow his body to be broken in death and will pour the precious ointment of his life-blood on all of us who are destined to die.
Her action is considered wasteful and foolish by the bystanders, so that Jesus must correct them as he praises this woman for her generosity. And, in like manner, what Jesus does may appear to be foolish and wasteful to an unbelieving and cynical world, but his Father will raise him from the dead and thereby confirm forever the wisdom of his generosity.
If we take this little story of the anointing of Jesus seriously, we will learn that the passion story is not primarily about how much Jesus suffered, but rather about how much he loved. He did suffer, of course, and his suffering was intense. But suffering as such is not necessarily redemptive. What makes the pain and suffering of Jesus the source of salvation for us is the fact that it resulted from his extraordinary loving. We all know that suffering can come from other sources than loving, such as, not getting our own way or being wedded to false goals, but this kind of selfish suffering has nothing in common with the suffering of Jesus.
And so, for example, when we make the Way of the Cross (the Stations), we may be tempted to say: “I’m with you, Jesus. I’m suffering just as you did!” But Jesus could very well say to us, “Are you suffering because you love? If so, by all means join me, and we will walk together toward Resurrection. Otherwise, please try to learn the real meaning of love.”
The love of Jesus is unselfish and therefore will always involve the pain of self-denial. In like manner, good parents suffer as they make sacrifices for their children, just as children suffer when they try to be more mature and unselfish. Some suffering always results when we place the needs of others before our own interests. Old people also suffer when they trust God’s goodness and promises in spite of the apparent hopelessness of their situation. But it is also true that such loving sacrifice always brings with it real joy, as well as the promise of eternal happiness.
In this very real human suffering that inevitably follows real loving, we can be comforted by the assurance that we are being anointed with the precious blood of Jesus. This enables us to walk with him on the way of the cross–that loving, painful path that leads to glory. When we do this, we too will be called foolish and be told that we are wasting our lives by not working for ourselves alone. But Jesus will tell us, as he told that generous and sensitive woman, that what we do is not foolish but “a good thing.” Nothing can be more comforting than to hear Jesus make such a wonderful judgment about our feeble efforts to walk with Jesus.
Demetrius R. Dumm, O.S.B.