The Gospel reading for today, John 12:1—11, is a unique version of the narrative of the anointing of Jesus prior to his death. Mary of Bethany, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, appears as the anointer; she is not named in earlier Gospels (Mark 14:3-9; Matthew 26:6-13). The earlier tradition instead seems to identify the anointer as Mary Magdalene, but without explicitly saying so.
The significance that Jesus gives to the action remains the same through any variation from story to story: this anointing conveys the necessity of his death, and his awareness of opposition to him in Jerusalem. But John’s Gospel makes a connection through Mary of Bethany to the story of Jesus’ raising Lazarus, her brother (John 11:1-52). That narrative is unique to John’s Gospel, so that the scene of the anointing is set in a context that speaks of victory over the grave and points the way forward to the Resurrection, as well as to the Crucifixion. In John’s Gospel, in fact, the Crucifixion itself is when “the Son of Man is glorified” (John 13:31) because it is the moment when he accomplishes the love that his disciples are also to show one another (John 13:34-35), and which derives from God.
The passage from the book of Isaiah, with which we begin, highlights today’s theme. Isaiah’s reference to the servant of God, which in its original context in the Hebrew Bible refers to Israel, combines the theme of trial with that of vindication, so that the aim of Jesus’ suffering is kept in view. The excerpt from Psalm 36 celebrates the security God offers in the midst of uncertainty, while the Epistle to the Hebrews explains the redemption that Jesus’ death affects for believers. Where John’s Gospel portrays Jesus’ death on the cross as transcendent love, the Epistle to the Hebrews works out a comparison between Jesus and the High Priest in the Temple. For Hebrews, the details of sacrifice laid out in the Hebrew Bible were intended as symbolic representations of Jesus’ willingness to offer himself. Animal offerings merely approximated the mediation between humanity and God, which was their aim. Only Jesus’ sacrifice achieved that purpose, and by accomplishing his task he enters the heavenly sanctuary, the place of his vindication.
God’s Servant Israel, a Light to the Nations
This reading from Isaiah 42 highlights themes of trial and vindication. The servant to whom Isaiah refers is the people of Israel, supported and redeemed by God. In view of the message of Christianity, the experience of the servant is made paradigmatic of Jesus’ suffering and his subsequent victory over death.
- 1. This is my servant, whom I support,
my chosen one, in whom my being delights.
- I have imparted to him my spirit;
he will bring forth justice to the nations.
- 2. He will not cry out nor raise his voice.
He will not make his voice heard in the street.
- 3. A crushed reed he will not break,
and a faintly burning wick—he will not extinguish it.
According to the truth he will bring forth justice.
- 4. He will not grow faint and will not be crushed until he has established justice in the earth;
and his teaching, coastlands shall await.
- 5. Thus says God, the Lord,
who created the heavens and stretched them out,
who spread out the earth and all that comes from it,
who places breath in the people who dwell upon it
and respiration in all who walk on it:
- 6. I am the Lord.
I called you in righteousness,
and I have grasped you by your hand and protected you;
and I established you as a covenant for all people, a light to the nations.
- 7. To bring sight to unseeing eyes,
to release the imprisoned from the dungeon,
from the prison those who sit in darkness.
- 8. I am the Lord. That is my name.
The honor due me I shall not give to any other,
nor the praise due me to idols.
- 9. The first things indeed have come to pass,
and new things I am proclaiming.
Before they spring forth, I shall make all of you hear.
God’s Mercy Fills the Earth
This reading from Psalm 36 extends the theme of trial and vindication, reflecting on the security God offers even in the midst of tribulation and uncertainty.
- 5. Lord, your steadfast love extends to the heavens;
your faithfulness as far as the clouds.
- 6. Your righteousness is like mighty mountains;
your justice, the great deep.
Human and animal alike you save, Lord.
- 7. How precious is your steadfast love, God;
all people find shelter in the shadow of your wings.
- 8. They take their fill from the abundance of your house;
and you satisfy them from the river of your pleasures.
- 9. For the fountain of life is with you;
through your light we see light.
- 10. Extend your steadfast love to those who have regard for you;
and your righteousness to those of upright heart.
- 11. May the foot of the arrogant not tread on me,
the hand of evil-doers not drive me away.
Jesus, the true High Priest
The Epistle to the Hebrews, among the most accomplished literary works in the New Testament, develops a comprehensive theology of Jesus’ death. For the author, a disciple of the apostle Paul writing after Paul’s death, all of the provisions for sacrifice in the Scriptures of Israel were symbols for what would later be manifest in the Passion of Jesus. They signal how Jesus makes himself a sacrificial offering, securing God’s favor and the forgiveness of sin.
Anointed, he has become High Priest of the good that comes through the better and more perfect Sanctuary—not made with hands, not of this creation. Through neither goats’ nor calves’ blood, but through his own blood, he entered once and for all into the Holy Places, finding eternal redemption. Because if the blood of goats and bulls and sprinkled ash of a heifer sanctify those defiled for the cleansing of flesh, much more does the blood of the Anointed, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, cleanse our conscience from dead works to worship a living God. For this reason he is mediator of a new covenant: a death has occurred for the redemption of transgressions under the first covenant so that those called might receive the promise of eternal inheritance.
The Anointing of Jesus
Today’s Gospel reading foreshadows the Crucifixion. Mary of Bethany anoints Jesus for his burial, which is set in a context of anticipating victory over the grave.
Six days before the Pascha––Passover, Jesus came into Bethany, where Lazarus was, whom Jesus raised from the dead. So, they gave a dinner for him there, and Martha served him, and Lazarus was one of those reclining at the table with him. Therefore, Mary took a pound of expensive nard ointment and anointed Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair, and the house was filled with the scent of the perfume. Then Judas Iscariot, one of his committed students, who was about to hand him over to arrest, said, “For what reason was this perfume not sold for three-hundred denarii and given to the poor?” He didn’t say this because the poor mattered to him, but because he was a thief. Having possession of the money bag, he was often helping himself from what was put into it. In response Jesus said, “Leave her alone, so that she can keep it in preparation for the day of my burial. For you will always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me.” When the large crowd of Judeans learned that he was there, they came, not only because of Jesus, but also to see Lazarus, the one whom he raised from the dead. The high priests then devised a plan to put Lazarus to death also, because many of the Judeans were going away and believing in Jesus.