For the first time in nearly 25 years, I will not be attending formal worship services on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday in Holy Week. I’m in a new parish and arrived just in time to step into helping to carry out plans made in advance of my arrival.
For these 25 years, I have found the readings appointed for Holy Week to be a wonderful set-up for what happens in the more popular services of the Triduum (The Great Three Days). So, here’s my encouragement to join me in taking a look at these readings. I’ll be posting some introductions and devotional reflections on the readings today, tomorrow, and Wednesday.
Isaiah 42:1-9 In this selection from one of the servant narratives, God’s voice is heard as a kind of love song for the servant. The servant is God’s chosen delight; the Spirit holds him up. Notice the tenderness embedded in the language, like when a parent holds hands with her child. The beloved servant is called and sent to “bring forth justice to the nations.” Here is the wonder of it: justice will result from quiet, gentle persistence, not from grand displays of force.
In the church, of course, we see Jesus as servant, the Son called by and beloved of the Father, even from the world’s creation. In the events that unfold this week, Jesus will present himself to the religious and secular authorities with a spirit of meekness; God’s justice and righteousness will result from the gentle persistence of the cross and the quiet of the empty tomb.
Hebrews 9:11-15 The letter to the Hebrews is one the most theologically dense books in the bible. In this reading the author tries to say something about Christ’s death that the gospels never say. These few verses invite us to think particularly about the Holy Place in the Jerusalem temple, a place entered only very rarely and only by the high priest. Christ as high priest goes to the Holy of Holies once and for all. Except here’s an important distinction: the Holy Place for Christ is not the temple building, but his own body and the sacrifice his own blood, not the blood of animals. But the theological point raises more questions than it gives answers. How can death, particularly the way Christ died, in any way be considered a Holy Place, indeed, the Holy Place? Christ is the victim of injustice, an abuse of both religious authority and imperial power. The cross is an ugly sign of execution, of state-sponsored murder. All of this as Holy of Holies? That’s the strange and astonishing logic of Holy Week and, indeed, of the whole Christian tradition. It’s a place where we’re bound to be frustrated if we are intent on reason and crisp answers; instead, we are invited simply to ponder these perplexing holy mysteries of God’s love poured out for us and for all creation.
John 12:1-11 The story of Mary’s extravagant gesture of pouring expensive perfume on Jesus’ feet and then wiping them with her hair is a rich foreshadowing of what is to come so soon. Of course, just before this story, Jesus had raised Mary’s brother, Lazarus, a reading that should be fresh in our minds from just 8 days ago on the 5th Sunday in Lent. As a result Jesus’ raising Lazarus, there was an active plot to kill Jesus. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. In thanks for what Jesus has done, Lazarus, Mary, and Martha throw him a dinner party where Mary engages in this ecstatic extravagance that fills the entire house with fragrance. Mary’s offering reflects a deeply loving and tender way of being with Jesus.
In this setting of such love and devotion, there is also ugliness. This dinner party is undertaken with Jesus’ knowledge of the plot to kill him. Judas, who is soon to betray Jesus, complains about Mary’s waste of the costly perfume, secretly desiring, of course, to keep the money for himself.
The experience of God’s love, known in the nature of Jesus’ relationship with us, does not happen in a pristine vacuum, a place and time unspoiled by the ravages of human sin and betrayal. No, the encounter between Jesus and Mary happens in the very thick of the hatred, the plots to kill encroaching, closing in. Mary’s action foreshadows the anointing associated with death.
Soon after the dinner party, Jesus will enter Jerusalem, the beginning of the end. In that holy city, he will initiate the fullness of life and love and joy. No human plot can snuff out the foundation of God’s love known in Jesus. We are invited to enter this reality during Holy Week, and especially in the coming Three Days. Contemplate the extravagance of Mary’s ecstatic act, knowing that her action is but a foreshadow of even more extravagant love that we will come to know in Jesus who is for us the very face of God.