Nova’s Ordo: Palm Sunday

Nova’s Ordo: Palm Sunday April 1, 2012

From the Gospel for Palm Sunday:

When he was in Bethany reclining at table

in the house of Simon the leper,
a woman came with an alabaster jar of perfumed oil,
costly genuine spikenard.
She broke the alabaster jar and poured it on his head.
There were some who were indignant.
“Why has there been this waste of perfumed oil?
It could have been sold for more than three hundred days’ wages
and the money given to the poor.”
They were infuriated with her.
Jesus said, “Let her alone.
Why do you make trouble for her?
She has done a good thing for me.
The poor you will always have with you,
and whenever you wish you can do good to them,
but you will not always have me.
She has done what she could.
She has anticipated anointing my body for burial.
Amen, I say to you,
wherever the gospel is proclaimed to the whole world,
what she has done will be told in memory of her.”

They brought him to the place of Golgotha
— which is translated Place of the Skull —
They gave him wine drugged with myrrh,
but he did not take it.
Then they crucified him and divided his garments
by casting lots for them to see what each should take.
It was nine o’clock in the morning when they crucified him.
The inscription of the charge against him read,
“The King of the Jews.”
With him they crucified two revolutionaries,
one on his right and one on his left.
Those passing by reviled him,
shaking their heads and saying,
“Aha! You who would destroy the temple
and rebuild it in three days,
save yourself by coming down from the cross.”
Likewise the chief priests, with the scribes,
mocked him among themselves and said,
“He saved others; he cannot save himself.
Let the Christ, the King of Israel,
come down now from the cross
that we may see and believe.”
Those who were crucified with him also kept abusing him.

I have the curious habit of trying to “baptize” secular music:  I take the lyrics of popular songs and try to fit them to religious themes.  This often works directly, or by changing a word or two.  During the past weeks of Lent, I have been ruminating on the opening lyrics of a Roy Orbison song, You Got It:

Every time I look into your loving eyes/I see a love that money just can’t buy….

It seemed to me that this provided a good beginning for a meditation on the crucifixion, and I thought about doing a blog post about it.  However, nothing really came to me, though I did search the web for an image of the face of Christ that went with these words.  (I found one, which you can see here.  The artist has reserved all rights, so I didn’t want to simply copy it into this post.)  And, going to the song, I realized that the second verse, while an ideal sentiment, simply was not true, at least in my case:

Every time I’m with you, I begin to understand/Everything about you tells me I’m your man…

I want to be “his man” but somehow, it doesn’t seem to work that way.  I try, but I fail.

And then I read today’s gospel in preparation for writing this post.  At first I was completely overwhelmed:  by the luck of the draw I had gotten one of the most complex and compelling scenes in the Gospel of St. Mark.   What could I say?  Where to start?  But as I read this gospel, and especially as I heard it read at mass today, I was drawn to the story of the unnamed woman at Bethany.   The Gospel of Mark has been building to its climax.  Jesus has repeatedly revealed his identity and his upcoming passion to his disciples, but they did not understand.  The final hours are upon him and they are none the wiser.  Indeed, after the triumphant entry into Jerusalem, some of them may have gotten the wrong idea.  And then this woman anoints him with precious ointment.   Mark gives us no details about her intentions or understanding:   we can only guess based upon her actions.   Was this a spontaneous gesture?  Did she, perhaps alone among the disciples, understand what was to come?   Or was she simply responding with love to the invitation she saw in Jesus?

Every time I look into your loving eyes/I see a love that money just can’t buy….

Whatever the reasons, her gesture was extravagant:  not only did she use an entire bottle of precious ointment to anoint Jesus, but she broke an expensive alabaster jar in her haste to get it open.  She did what she came to do, without thinking about the cost.

The disciples did not respond well to what she did:

There were some who were indignant….. They were infuriated with her.

Indeed, though Mark does not say so directly, he intimates that this was the proximate cause of Judas’ betrayal of Jesus.   Why this reaction?  I am sure that there really was a genuine concern for the poor.  There may also have been some envy (“She could have anointed all of us with that oil!”), or even greed (“300 days wages: I wish I could get my hands on that kind of money!”).  But beyond that, I think that they were simply extremely uncomfortable in the presence of love expressed without reservation.  They all loved Jesus and had left behind their old lives to follow him.  But there were limits.  Whether out of a sense of prudence or decorum, they found her actions excessive:  too open, too demonstrative, too passionate.

And if I am going to be honest with myself, I must admit that I often find myself alongside the disciples.  I can be passionate and demonstrative in my love:  sending my wife a dozen roses for no good reason, taking my sons out to dinner just because.  But, for some reason, in my faith, I hold myself back.  Part of me does not want to:  rather, it wants to throw itself head first into the maelstrom of God’s love.   But I hold back.     Why?  Am I afraid?  Almost certainly.  But of what?  What my friends and family will think?  What it will cost?  What I will become?  Or am I simply afraid to love?  As Dostoevsky said,

Love in reality is a harsh and dreadful thing, compared to love in dreams.

Thankfully, there is room for everyone in the Church:  the perfected and those just trying to get by.   Nevertheless, the call of faith, the prompting of God’s grace to which we are invited to respond to again and again, calls us in deeper.  This Holy Week we are called to respond more fully, more spontaneously to the love of Christ:

Then they crucified him and divided his garments
by casting lots for them to see what each should take.

We must, of course, be mindful of our own sinfulness:  as St. Francis of Assisi said, it is we who crucified our Lord, and continue to crucify him with our vices and sins.  But this is not the ultimate aim of Christ’s sacrificial love.  To live in Christ is to do more than to turn away from sin.  We must also believe the Gospel, the good news of God’s love for his creation.  We must pass beyond the crucifixion to the resurrection.  For even as today’s readings anticipate Good Friday, we must anticipate the Easter that follows.   Unlike the disciples, we know how the story comes out.  We know that the promise was fulfilled, and continues to be fulfilled in our hearts, if only we open ourselves to the love of God.

As you contemplate the passion of Christ this Holy Week, I pray that you will see in his sufferings the depth of his love:

Every time I look into your loving eyes/I see a love that money just can’t buy….

And I pray that you will find the strength to respond more fully to that love.

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