Six days before Passover Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus was, whom Jesus had raised from the dead.
They gave a dinner for him there, and Martha served, while Lazarus was one of those reclining at table with him. Mary took a liter of costly perfumed oil made from genuine aromatic nard and anointed the feet of Jesus and dried them with her hair; the house was filled with the fragrance of the oil. Then Judas the Iscariot, one of his disciples, and the one who would betray him, said, “Why was this oil not sold for three hundred days’ wages and given to the poor?” He said this not because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief and held the money bag and used to steal the contributions. So Jesus said, “Leave her alone. Let her keep this for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”
The large crowd of the Jews found out that he was there and came, not only because of him, but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. And the chief priests plotted to kill Lazarus too, because many of the Jews were turning away and believing in Jesus because of him.
John 12: 1-11
St. John of the Cross
St. John of the Cross describes a soul dedicated to loving God in the same way that Mary loves God.
“Aware of the Bridegroom’s words in the Gospel, that no one can serve two masters but must necessarily fail one [Mt 6:24], the soul claims here that in order not to fail God she failed all that is not God, that is, herself and all other creatures, losing all these for love of him.
“Anyone truly in love will let all other things go in order to come closer to the loved one. On this account the soul affirms here that she lost herself. She achieved this in two ways: she became lost to herself by paying no attention to herself in anything, by concentrating on her Beloved and surrendering herself to him freely and disinterestedly, with no desire to gain anything for herself; second, she became lost to all creatures, paying no heed to all her own affairs but only to those of her Beloved. And this is to love herself purposely, which is to desire to be found.
“The one who walks in the love of God seeks neither gain nor reward, but seeks only to lose with the will all things and self for God; and this loss the lover judges to be a gain. Thus it is, as St. Paul asserts: Mori lucrum [Phil 1:21], that is, my death for Christ is my gain, spiritually, of all things and of myself. Consequently the soul declares: I was found. The soul that does not know how to lose herself does not find herself but rather loses herself, as Our Lord teaches in the Gospel: Those who desire to gain their soul shall lose it, and those who lose it for my sake shall gain it [Mt 16:25].
“Should we desire to interpret this verse more spiritually and in closer accord with what we are discussing here, it ought to be known that when a soul treading the spiritual road has reached such a point that she has lost all roads and natural methods in her communion with God, and no longer seeks him by reflections or forms or feelings or by any other way of creatures and the senses, but has advanced beyond them all and beyond all modes and manners, and enjoys communion with God in faith and love, then it is said that God is her gain, because she has certainly lost all that is not God” (C 29.10–11).
In today’s Gospel passage Martha’s sister, Mary, spent lavishly on Jesus by pouring an expensive oil over the feet of Jesus. She did this with no concern for her reputation or the approval of others. She did it entirely out of love for Jesus. Jesus appreciated this gesture not so much for it having been done to himself but because he saw in it Mary’s total gift of self, a gift that was not preoccupied with herself but with Jesus.
John of the Cross similarly describes a soul who has become totally lost to self-preoccupation and totally found with regard to God. We live in a world where we are encouraged to be preoccupied with our health, our wealth, our future of how we will spend our last years, and so forth. All these are to a certain extent necessary; but it could be wondered how free are we to remember God when we become totally absorbed in our own needs?
John of the Cross describes a soul who has failed in everything that did not concern God. Such a soul had earlier become possessed by God, or at least drawn by God to free herself from all about herself that did not concern God as John of the Cross says in his Ascent:
“The soul, then, states that ‘fired with love’s urgent longings’ it passed through this night of sense to union with the Beloved. A love of pleasure, and attachment to it, usually fires the will toward the enjoyment of things that give pleasure. A more intense enkindling of another, better love (love of the soul’s Bridegroom) is necessary for the vanquishing of the appetites and the denial of this pleasure. By finding satisfaction and strength in this love, it will have the courage and constancy to readily deny all other appetites. The love of its Bridegroom is not the only requisite for conquering the strength of the sensitive appetites; an enkindling with urgent longings of love is also necessary. For the sensory appetites are moved and attracted toward sensory objects with such cravings that if the spiritual part of the soul is not fired with other, more urgent longings for spiritual things, the soul will be able neither to overcome the yoke of nature nor to enter the night of sense; nor will it have the courage to live in the darkness of all things by denying its appetites for them.”(A 1.14.2).
At some point in Mary’s life, Jesus enkindled in her a love for him that enabled her to forget herself and remember only Jesus. How this happens for each one of us will be different; but fidelity to the Lenten practices of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving do open the door, even if ever so slightly, to become enamored by the love of God to make greater acts of self-forgetfulness and being habitually mindful of God and all that concerns God. Blessed are they who have begun.
Lord God, in the example of Mary at Bethany you showed an example of disinterested love for your Son. Grant, we ask, that we too may love your Son with the same disinterested love and express it by dying to our self-seeking and self-loving through the sufferings you send us. We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen.
Adapted from A Lenten Journey with Jesus Christ and St. John of the Cross by Fr. George Mangiaracina O.C.D.