Mark Helprin is perhaps my favorite modern novelist, a writer whose stories not only plumb the depths of the human condition, but also soar to the heights of the divine image within humanity.
|Page from the Daianu|
Helprin states that, "If one thinks that way, one can pass any test." Amen.
As I read those words the other evening my thoughts turned to today's Gospel passage, an incident in which we encounter two very different people, two very different attitudes about God, about Jesus Christ, about life itself. These two - Mary of Bethany and Judas - offer us a remarkable contrast.
The timing, of course, is crucial, for it takes place six days before the Passover, six days before Jesus sacrifices His life for us on the Cross at Calvary, six days before His lifeless body is placed in the tomb.
And so Mary, in the house of her brother, Lazarus, kneels before her Savior and pours expensive perfumed unguent all over the feet of Jesus, filling the house with its fragrance. She then dries His feet with her hair - all done, as Jesus reminds us, in anticipation of His burial.
Mary says nothing, but in her actions we can hear the words of today's Psalm:
"The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom should I fear?" [Ps 27:1]For Mary, just the presence of her Savior is sufficient, and it calls her to worship Him fearlessly and lavishly. Yes, His presence is more than enough for Mary.
Indeed, this is the only anointing Jesus' body will receive; for a week later, on that Resurrection morning, the women who carry their oils to His tomb will find it empty.
But the Gospel passage doesn't stop there, does it? Another is present: Judas Iscariot. He confronts and criticizes Mary for her extravagance. Like all materialists, Judas is spiritually blind, and in a fit of sheer hypocrisy, asks aloud:
"Why was this oil not sold for three hundred days' wages and given to the poor?" [Jn 12:5]This, John tells us, comes from a man who would have stolen the funds for his own use. Is it any surprise that Judas will trade the life of Jesus for a handful of silver coins?
Jesus responds to Judas by defending Mary. For Jesus, Mary's action is nothing less than a sign of her great love for Him. But then He adds:
"You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me" [Jn 12:8].
This is no derisive comment by Jesus. He's not telling us to ignore the poor. On the contrary, He simply reminds us that only those who with a deep love for God can extend that love to the poor and to all those in need.
Sadly, Judas does not understand this. Indeed, he is already forming his plan, and through his treachery will bring about Jesus' death. Mary anoints Jesus for His burial, a burial that will be brought about by the betrayal of the apostle. The betrayal is deliberate. We don't really know his motives, but it was still a cold and calculated act.
Later John tells us that Satan entered into Judas when he rejected Jesus. That's what Satan does, brothers and sisters, but only if we let him. He twists love and turns it into hate. He turns holiness into pride, discipline into cruelty, affection into complacency, trust into despair.
And, believe me, Satan is active in our world today, a world filled with threats that lead so many to fear, and from fear to despair. But fear is nothing but the absence of faith.
If you and I, like the Jew at Passover, or like Mary at the feet of Jesus, if we can express our thankfulness for God's gift of life, for the simple fact of His loving, forgiving existence, then "we can pass any test."
Oh, yes, brothers and sisters, we are all sinners. We all betray the Lord. But what kind of betrayers, what kind of sinners are we? Are we like Mary who turns to her merciful Lord in abundant love or are we like Judas who can only despair, only hate himself and the One who loves him?
Mark Helprin, "Falling into Eternity", First Things, March 2017; p.23