Lent 2023: Monday of Holy Week

The stages of consciousness in human evolution are often described as rising from animistic, to magical to mythical to rational.

the house was full of the scent of the ointment

Jn 12:1-11

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The stages of consciousness in human evolution are often described as rising from animistic, to magical to mythical to rational. They are mirrored in the mental development of each human being. The overwhelming question for us today is, ‘where next?’.

Rationalism and scientific materialism have led us to a tipping-point between self-destruction and self-transcendence. Perhaps to feel the way forward it is better to look behind than ahead. Some cultures think of the past as in front because we can see it better. The future is so imperceptible they describe it as behind them. Overall, as we can all witness, these different levels should be integrated while the next one dawns. We don’t have to entirely stop having a little magic or employing the mythical imagination when we look through a microscope or a telescope or deal with a banking crisis.

Today’s story is of a woman, Mary of Bethany, the contemplative sister of the over-active Martha. Six days before his death Jesus is at their house for dinner. Mary anoints his feet with a costly ointment, wiping them with her hair. The house is filled with the scent. The writer then describes the reaction of the traitor Judas who complains her gesture is a waste of money that could have been given to the poor. St John cuts into his own telling of the story to say Judas was a thief who stole from the common fund which he managed. Jesus defends Mary against Judas, as he did earlier against her sister, explaining how her action anticipates his embalming.

The story is a labyrinth of meaning. This means we can’t get lost if we keep taking the next step. The path goes backwards and forwards, as labyrinths do, but we will be sure to arrive at the centre. However, what level of consciousness is most appropriate for this reading which leads to the goal of a closer understanding of Jesus?

As we will see later in the Passion story, Judas is an important guide. His motivation for betraying his teacher remains unexplained. One gospel writer says he was possessed by Satan, another that he did it for money. Maybe, trying to increase revenue and make economies, he became stuck at a uni-linear level of rational consciousness. Jesus being so indifferent to the waste of money – and apparently even to the poor – painfully confused and unsettled him. Perhaps he felt betrayed. Rather than stereotyping him as a mythical evil villain, we could empathise with him, aware of our own struggle with understanding with a merely rational mind what can only be understood with a contemplative one. Let’s keep this possibility open until we see Jesus engaging with him at the Last Supper on Thursday.

Smell is highly evocative and emotional, pre-rational, also perhaps post-rational. Losing it diminishes life’s richness. The smell of money blocks out the perfume of truth. Here we also see the bending of time. The burial of Jesus is happening now at dinner. He is not being anointed as king, on the head, but as a corpse, starting with the feet. In this pre-prandial moment, even the waste of money makes sense when we see how many transparent planes of reality overlap each other, revealing a loving purpose of breathless wonder at work.

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