’Twere nothing else, the Mass knits daily the Old and New Testaments into a seamless garment; and in doing that, does more. In its “extraordinary” form (i.e. free of the Bugnini desecrations, designed to reduce the poetic to the prosaic), the creative tension between Epistle and Gospel provides, consistently, each and every day, material for contemplation on the high analogy of the Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We may, in preparation before the Mass, or in our walk home after, ask ourselves: 1. What is the Epistle saying? 2. What is the Gospel saying? 3. What are the two saying together? Today for instance, there is a theme of Acceptance. Isaiah gives a foreview of the scourging and humiliation of the Messiah; then Saint John shows us a dinner scene in Bethany, six days before the Pasch. In this, the Christian significance of the Pasch is unfolded; it is rehearsed. Within this scene is another scourging, of Jesus, by Judas Iscariot, which pertains to the Church in all ages. In this (much-revised) fragment of an Idlepost I have brought forward from two years ago, I try to explain something too easily lost on those who count in silver coins.
We are shown today two ways of receiving Jesus, at Bethany, in the household of Martha and Mary, and their brother Lazarus, whom Christ had raised from the dead. The commonplace today is that the sisters represent respectively a more mystical way, in Mary, and a more practical way, in Martha. I have been told many times by modern Christian women, “I am more like Martha.” Nearly always I detect a certain unintended self-satisfaction, a kind of advertisement for humility, as if the lady were shopping, and choosing the less expensive dress. Or if you will, the simpler New Mass, over the extravagant Old Mass, because the former is more suitable for “humble people,” with their busy lives. Not by word, but by insinuation, Mary is criticized again.
Let us take for granted that both ways are valid. We have been assured that they are. But are they “equal”? … According to Jesus, No.
Martha, it will be recalled, was actually whining to Jesus about the behaviour of her sister, Mary. For while Martha has been running about, tidying the house, prepping the food for dinner, Mary has been dawdling. She is as it were an idler: for there is housework to do, and there is Mary, sitting at Christ’s feet, just listening to him, or drinking him in. But it gets worse. Mary has now taken the extremely costly oil of spikenard — one full pint of it, no doubt the family supply “for ever” — and poured it over Jesus’ feet. And to top this, she has wiped Those Feet with her own long hair, so that the scent of this oil has filled the house, and might well be filling the neighbourhood. Is this, or is this not, a “reasonable” thing to do?
We know this spikenard from the Song of Songs. Through all time, however mysteriously, however beyond human understanding, this act has been expected. And now, in the fullness of time, it has been performed.
In the Gospel today, we have the testimony of Judas Iscariot that the pint of spikenard Mary poured over Jesus’ feet was worth a year’s wages for a working man. (The denarius, anciently translated as a “penny,” was the basic silver coin: the standard daily workman’s wage. Judas, no slouch in accounting, estimated the price at 300 denarii, which is to say, ten times the amount for which he was prepared to sell Jesus out.)
Why, Judas asks, was this extravagant perfume not sold? Why, when it could have been used to raise so much money for the poor?
It is a question all progressives ask, when they look upon the extravagance of traditional Christian rituals, the architecture of the cathedrals, and the real estate they are sitting on. The question has often been asked with great sanctimony, on behalf of “a Church that is poor and for the poor.” As the passage in John makes abundantly clear, it is the remark of a fraud, a Judas.
And Christ, already knowing this much — it is the very week in which He will be betrayed — replies patiently to it.
Sinite illam, He begins, in defence of Mary. It means, “Let her alone.” Let her alone: “that she may keep it against the day of My burial. For the poor you have always with you; but Me you have not always.” In the approach to the Passover, He has conveyed that Mary is anointing His body; as, too, today, the Church anoints.
Saint John, the Evangelist whose account of the Life of Jesus is most vivid and immediate — “the disciple whom Christ loved”; who like Horatio in Hamlet seems always to be there, witnessing, even when we have forgotten he is still on stage, listening to what we have mistaken for soliloquies — spells it all out so that we will not be mistaken. He lets us know that Judas was the accountant among the Apostles, the keeper of the money bag; and that he was corrupt. He was, like our modern nanny state, the one who would be distributing those alms. After taking his cut.
How obscene that the Church has all this wealth, when there are poor that go hungry! How irrelevant the old Latin Mass, when “the people” do not understand Latin!
Judas is “a man of the people.” He is the master of plausibility; the man who keeps his eye on the till; the guy who gets the paperwork done; the commissar of the counting house; our modern hero.
Christ is not plausible. For that matter, the Resurrection from the Dead is not plausible — not to us, and not to the ancient world, either. Resurrection from the Dead has never been plausible, in any culture. Creatures once dead have always stayed that way, and not only for the more sophisticated observers. The most primitive hunter knows that what is dead, stays dead. It does not rise in the very flesh. Ghosts, maybe, but not in the flesh. Verily, that is why he kills it: to make that creature stay dead.
There is more in this account. I think of our modern social arrangements. The rich will be taxed to help the poor; it is all so plausible. I think of this as Judas, distributing the alms, after taking some for his own share; as Judas Iscariot writ large. I think of him as chancellor, president, fundraiser, bishop; the man with the golden tongue. He’s the politician. I’ve watched his election campaigns; watched him corralling the lower-income constituency; heard all about his bleeding-heart compassion. The poor are more numerous than the rich: there’s compassion for you. And the rich have accountants: there’s your hope and spare change. I’ve seen all the ads for St Judas Iscariot, and watched him perform at his prayer breakfasts, too.
Why not sell the spikenard? Why not give the money to the poor? It would be the plausible thing, after all; Judas is the expert on income redistribution. Sell it, and write a cheque, and have done with it. Then we can sleep at night, knowing that we are good people, who have paid our taxes. The poor will all be fed. Judas is taking care of it.
And the poor will go under the bus, with Jesus.
Saint John provides the almost tedious detail: “Now Judas said this not because he cared for the poor; but because he was a thief, and having the purse, carried the things that were put therein.”
But of course the Church is “for the poor.” And let me add that the poor do not feel honoured when they are served in earthenware chalices, and from straw baskets, while the rich get silver. Instead, they see the hypocrisy; they feel the condescension. God should have beautiful things, and they, who are poor, may share in them. Every beautiful thing in the Church belongs equally to the poor. For many, it is the only wealth they have: unspeakably precious. For everyone else “speaks truth to power.” But Christ speaks to them.
As Dostoyevsky wrote, beauty is evangelical. It is a line that comes from the mouth of “the Idiot,” the epileptic Prince Myshkin: “Beauty will save the world!” And from the context we see that by the beautiful, Myshkin means Christ. (Pope Benedict once expounded this, wonderfully, and from the same Dostoyevsky: that Christ is beauty, that beauty is Christ.)
And as Christ said, what Mary of Bethany has done for Him, is beautiful.
“Something beautiful for God,” as another woman said, at another time, and in another place: Calcutta. She was another whose priorities were also challenged, by the Judases of our day. (Why did she prioritize Love over “modern medicine”? How could she think painkillers actually less urgent for the dying, than the action of Our Lady’s “I am here”?)
It is all there in the Mass today — that and more, in the creative tension between Isaiah and Saint John: the beauty in Christ’s coming down, and in the anointing, and in His rising again; the Glory in the First, and in the Last, manifest in the Now.