• Holy Week: Chapter 4: Wednesday in Holy Week

    by  • 6 April 2020 • Extract, Holy Week, Religion, The Christian Community • 0 Comments

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    Holy Week will guide you from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday. It will help bring the events of Easter alive, and provides opportunities for prayer and contemplation. Each day is accompanied by a gospel reading.

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    Matthew 26:3–16

    Anointing in Bethany

    (3) And the chief priests and the elders of the people gathered in the hall of the high priest Caiaphas (4) and made a resolution to get Jesus into their power by treachery and to kill him. (5) They said to themselves, however: It had best not be during the festival, in case there should be an uprising among the people.

    (6) When Jesus was in Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, (7) a woman came up to him with an alabaster jar of the most precious ointment; and she poured it on his head as he sat at table. (8) When the disciples saw it, they were indignant and said, ‘Why this waste? (9) It could have been sold for a large sum and the proceeds given to the poor.’ (10) But Jesus perceived their thoughts and said, ‘Why do you plague the woman? She has done a good deed to me. (11) The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me. (12) By anointing my body she has prepared me for burial. (13) Yes, I say to you, wherever in the whole world this Gospel is proclaimed, what she has done will be told and her memory will be honoured.’

    Betrayal by Judas

    (14) Then one of the twelve, Judas Iscariot, went to the chief priests (15) and said, ‘What will you give me if I deliver him into your hands?’ And they offered him thirty pieces of silver. (16) From then on he sought an opportunity to betray him.

    Wednesday in Holy Week

    The ‘Still Week’ — as Holy Week is called in some countries — is not really still until the middle day is past. On Palm Sunday the city was in a state of tremor; on Monday the tables of the vendors and money-changers were overturned in the Temple; on Tuesday, sword-thrusts were dealt in spiritual conflict between Christ and his opponents. It is not until the last part of the week that stillness descends. Wednesday, Mercury’s day, is the turning point. The mercurial element of living movement, represents the transition from the first unquiet days of the ‘Still Week’ to those in which the consummation of Christ’s life moves into ever deeper stillness.

    Towards evening on Wednesday a scene stands out which, although it has also occurred before, takes on a special significance on this middle day of balance. Christ has turned from the tumult of the city to the quiet country town of Bethany, beyond the Mount of Olives. He stays in the circle of those with whom he is particularly united. A meal has been prepared for him as on other evenings. But it is as though a certain radiance fell upon the scene, shining in advance from the meal which will be celebrated the next day. A presentiment of the Last Supper hovers round the community at table. The country town of Bethany, quiet as it is, has shortly before been the scene of the raising of Lazarus, the event which had given the signal for battle. Lazarus is one of those gathered round the table; and it is he, as we know, who is described by the gospel­ as resting on the heart of Jesus the next evening. At the Last Supper it is he who is nearest to Christ, both outwardly and inwardly.

    Two women also belong to the community at table, Martha and Mary Magdalene, whom the Gospel of John states to be the sisters of Lazarus. They have been led by the hand of providence into this circle, which is more related by the spirit than by blood. In the life of each of these three persons there has been an event which brought a radical transformation. For Lazarus it was the awakening from the grave, the great release of the John-spirit for its flight to the heights. For Mary Magdalene the event lay somewhat farther back; it is called in the gospel a ‘driving out of devils.’ She had been healed of the tragedy of ‘possession’ and had experienced the freeing and purifying of her soul. For Martha there had also been a significant event; she is said in early Christian tradition to be the woman who was healed of the issue of blood. Destiny had decreed that she should bring with her into life a weakness through which her bodily organism was unable to hold its forces together. Through meeting with the one who could heal her, a staying power, a formative force, drew into her body, just as an inner peace had entered the soul of Mary Magdalene. The brother and sisters of Bethany became the intimate friends of Christ through healings of the spirit, the soul and the body.

    As they all sit at table with the disciples, Mary is recorded as having anointed the feet of Christ with precious pure nard ointment and wiped them with her hair. John’s Gospel says that the whole house was filled with the perfume. Mary Magdalene had performed a similar act a year and a half previously. She had experienced a freeing and redeeming through her meeting with the Christ, and in order to show her overflowing gratitude she had, as the Gospel of Luke describes, anointed the feet of Christ and dried them with her hair. John’s Gospel, in the introductory words to the awakening of Lazarus, refers to this earlier scene (11:2). Mary Magdalene is described in St Luke’s Gospel as the ‘great sinner,’ and it is possible, according to old traditions, that she was a prostitute, driven by demons, in the worldly spa town of Tiberias, near her home at Magdala. But what does her act of anointing signify now? It is the type and symbol of a sacramental act. Therefore, when others declare her deed extravagant and become indignant, Christ can accept what this woman does as a sacrament of death, as a fulfilment of the Last Anointing. On the occasion of the earlier anointing he had said, ‘Her many sins are forgiven her, for she has shown much love.’ And one can feel how Mary has since been able to deepen the natural forces of earthly love erring on false paths, and transmute them into religious devotion, and the capacity for sacrifice.

    Then the solemn stillness is suddenly broken by a figure who forms a complete contrast to Mary Magdalene. It is one of the apostles, and as he sees the deed of Mary he loses all self-control. This is Judas. He says that the precious money which has just been squandered could have been given to the poor, and thus many social needs might have been relieved. John’s Gospel, however, makes it plain that his real motives are not the ostensible ones. The gospel openly calls him a thief. It may well be that the anger which Judas felt at the deed of Mary Magdalene gave the final impetus to his act of betrayal. He had waited a long time in tense expectation that Jesus would come forward publicly: then a political miracle would inevitably follow. In his feverish impatience, it seems to him that Christ wastes his time; and finally at Bethany his patience can endure no more. In uncontrolled irritation he goes out to those who lie in wait for the Christ. The second crucial event of the Wednesday is the betrayal by Judas.

    Both Judas and Mary Magdalene are typical Mercury people; they are active and temperamental. One of the virtues of their nature is that they are never tedious; something is always happening round them. Mary Magdalene, however, subdues her restlessness and transforms it into devotion, peace and the capacity for love. One can see from the gospel account that true devotion is the final achievement of an active soul, a soul for whom peace is not mere immobility, but mobility redeemed, made inward. Mary Magdalene has been storm-tossed; she has endured sinister experiences. But now an intense power of devotion grows from all that was formerly dark and disturbing. This intensity will later lift her above all other human beings; to her it is granted to be the first to meet and behold the Risen Christ.

    Judas is the type of the restless man who must always be outwardly active. He pretends to want something for the poor. However good and commendable social activity may be, it is often only self-deception. The underlying motive is not always a genuine social impulse, but very often one’s own inner restlessness. Many people would be most unhappy if they were obliged to do nothing for a time. It would then be seen that their social zeal is no true inner activity, but a yielding to an unacknowledged weakness. In Judas this kind of mercurial soul meets with a dark fate. His unrest springs from a deeply hidden fear, and it leads to his betrayal of Christ Jesus. Such a soul cannot show devotion; above all, it cannot love. A restless person is not capable of real love; for love is possible only where the soul has found peace. Thus in the two figures, Mary Magdalene and Judas, two roads separate, as at a crossroads. One leads to the realization of the nearness of Christ; the other into dark night, into the tragedy of suicide.

    Martha, the other sister of Lazarus, is a transition, as it were, between Judas and Mary Magdalene. Luke’s Gospel tells the story of Mary and Martha earlier on, and has a purpose in doing so. Martha is the constantly active one who cannot exist without undertaking some service. One cannot deny the genuine nature of her devotion, but one must not be blind to the fact that the unrest from which she was healed in the body has remained in her soul. Mary, who listens with devotion, is described as the one who has chosen the good part.

    The figures taking part in these scenes on the Wednesday show us the crossroads which we must face before we may hope for admittance to the sphere of Maundy Thursday. The ways separate in face of the mystery of the sacrament. Judas is the man without ritual. He becomes restless and loses self-control when he comes into the sphere of true ceremonial worship. Mary Magdalene is the sacramental soul. On the following evening, when the circle of disciples will be united in the sacrament as under a great dome, it will be apparent who is nearer to Mary, and who to Judas.

    Mercury, who for the Greco-Roman world was both the god of healing and also the god of merchants and of thieves, comes now into the orbit of the Christ-sun. The scene in the house of Lazarus and her sisters at Bethany shows how Mercury, the god of healing, can himself be healed by the sun of Christ.

    Continue to Chapter 5: Maundy Thursday

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