Jar of Nard: Monday of Holy Week 2021

Alabaster jar photographed by Argie Hernandez

Yesterday we wreathed our processional cross with bay leaves as a sign of Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem and his ultimate victory over sin and death. Today starts more soberly, with the alabaster jar of nard Mary poured over the feet of Jesus to prepare him for his burial.

None of the disciples demurred at yesterday’s marks of rejoicing. They cost nothing as far as they were concerned, and they may even have felt some reflected glory. It would have been better if their leader had entered the city in a more obviously dignified way, but the applause of the crowd was sweet to their ears. Jesus was, however briefly, undeniably a class act, a celebrity. Today’s more private anointing among friends at Bethany was another matter and Judas, diligent steward that he was, pointed out that a better use might have been made of the money spent: ‘Why wasn’t this ointment sold for three hundred denarii, and the money given to the poor?’

Poor Judas, he was always getting things wrong. Of course the poor matter; of course we must share with them; but there is also room for that jar of nard, and for the love of which it is a sign. Mary has understood what Judas has not. Her reckless, extravagant act is a response to the love Jesus has shown. It has no other purpose than to delight the Lord — a moment of humanity and care at a bleak and dangerous time. Holy Week will take us into some dark places, will confront us with betrayal and disbelief, torture and death, but we cannot accompany the Lord in his Passion if we do not also accompany him with our love and prayer. Just as that broken jar of nard filled the house at Bethany with its scent, so our prayer should fill the whole world with its fragrance. We too may need to be broken, poured out, pay a great price, but we know an even greater price has been paid for us. ‘To ransom a slave, you gave away a Son.’ (from the Easter Exsultet) There is no greater love than that, and it is that love which draws us today.


Monday of Holy Week 2020

Is it religious illiteracy alone that makes many people refer to this week as ‘Easter Week’? In a sense, those who do are right even though their usage is contrary to Christian tradition. We have an annual remembrance of the events leading up to the passion, death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we know that precisely because of his passion, death and resurrection, everything has changed — for ever. We are indeed an Easter people, living in the light of the resurrection, even today, when the streets leading into Jerusalem, which yesterday resounded to hosannas, are filled with dusty, trampled greenery and Jesus himself has disappeared from sight.

I think that temporary absence of Jesus from public view is an important element of Holy Week but we need to hold onto our Easter faith. On Maundy Thursday we shall see Jesus and his disciples again, and after that, he will be centre-stage, so to say. But for now, he is hidden. We do not see him or hear him. As the apostle says, ‘We walk by faith, not by sight.’ (2 Corinthians 5.7) These few days of apparent absence are the time when we must each make a decisive choice. It is easy to follow a conquering hero, to be one of the crowd applauding a triumphant entry, but to be a follower of someone who makes no great éclat, who is at odds with the establishment, whom we don’t even see, that is much harder. No wonder many give up at this point.

But for us, today, tired as we are, leaderless as we think we are, we must choose Jesus.

Audio version


Serving the Cause of Right

Palm Sunday was glorious, wasn’t it? The sun shone, the procession was a riot of colour and waving palm fronds, and only the reading of the Passion narrative reminded us that in a few days the hosannas will be replaced by shouts of ‘crucify him, crucify him!’ The Monday of Holy Week dawns bleaker and colder. We read Isaiah 42. 1–7 and realise, with a start, that while we genuinely wish to be the Lord’s true servants and model ourselves on him, almost everyone believes they are ‘serving the cause of right’. The High Priest did; the Sanhedrin did; even Pilate thought he was doing his duty by Rome and the province he was governing. Our problem is not always seeing what is actually right but instead allowing ourselves to be guided by principles that smack of self-interest or may do harm to others by perpetrating injustice or untruth.

A few days ago Arnaud Beltrame, a lieutenant colonel in the Gendarmerie, showed us what it means to serve the cause of right. He gave himself up in place of a hostage and paid with his life. Few are called upon to make such decisions with so little opportunity to think through the consequences. There was surely more at work there than training or discipline. To give one’s life for another can only be possible when there have been lots of acts of self-surrender and service beforehand. Perhaps today we could think about the ways in which we must learn to serve and the renunciations we have to make. As St Augustine says of martyrdom, the way cannot be hard when it has been trodden by so many before us, but we must each of us walk it in our own way and in our own time. Holy Week give us a unique opportunity to learn how to serve the cause of right. May we not funk it.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Monday of Holy Week 2017

Holy Week is already drenched in blood. The bombing of Coptic churches in Alexandria and Tanta is a reminder that to follow Christ is to risk everything, even life itself. I little thought when I wrote yesterday that we must follow Christ wherever he leads that for some their following him would end in a hideously violent, undeserved death at the very moment they were recalling his Passion. It is still dangerous to be a Christian, still dangerous to try to bring about true justice in the world.

Today’s Mass readings remind us that the Suffering Servant is to bring true justice to the nations, but we know the way in which he will do that is through apparent failure and death, a senseless waste of life — just as the blood of those Coptic martyrs must seem a senseless waste to many. And, of course, it is senseless if we see it as no more than the snuffing out of life. We hold fast, however, to the knowledge that in Christ nothing is ever entirely senseless, nothing ever wasted. We do not understand but we trust. A nun at her profession sings,  Suscipe me, Domine, secundum eloquium tuum, et vivam; et non confundas me in expectatione mea. ‘Receive me Lord, according to your word and I shall live; do not disappoint me in my hope.’ (Ps 118.116) Today I sing that verse for our Coptic brothers and sisters.

Note: there are several other posts on the readings of Monday of Holy Week. Please use the search box in the sidebar if interested.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

True Justice: Monday of Holy Week 2016

The hosannas have fallen silent; the greenery on the road into Jerusalem is dusty and trampled; and Jesus himself has slipped away to Bethany. On Monday in Holy Week the Church puts before us two very challenging readings. There is the Song of the Servant (Isaiah 42. 1–7) with its constant refrain about the bringing of true justice, and John’s account of the dinner at Bethany, where Mary anoints the feet of Jesus with a jar of pure nard (John 12. 1–11). On the one hand there is joy and dedication in the fulfilment of a mission that brings freedom and wholeness to a world grown sick and disordered with sin; on the other there is that lyrical moment of reckless love which draws censure from Judas with his spurious concern for the poor.

We must find Jesus in both; we must be Jesus in both. Every Christian is called to work for the establishment of true justice in the world, for the restoration of that right order which alone enables us to live freely and joyfully. But we must also be ready to break the jar of nard over the feet of a Christ who so often comes among us in hidden form, and, harder still, accept the anointing given us by others. To be the Lord’s servant is to work and pray, for true justice is not established by action alone but by transformation in and through Christ, a transformation only prayer can bring about.

Note: the Solemnity of St Benedict is transferred to Low Week this year: 5 April.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Monday of Holy Week 2015

Monastic life is sometimes presented in terms of today’s gospel, John 12.1–11: as the jar of nard broken and poured, a scandal to those with a social conscience because, of course, monks and nuns don’t do anything ‘useful’. It is a beautiful analogy and reminds us how close we ought to be to Christ in his Passion; how all-embracing our prayer should be, so that the wideness of our charity wafts abroad as a pure fragrance. But — and it is a very important ‘but’ — that gospel is set alongside the reading from Isaiah 42.1—7 about the Suffering Servant and the bringing of true justice. No matter where we are, no matter what our role in the Church, we ALL have a duty to share in the work of Jesus Christ our Saviour, bringing about a right order — true justice — and in so doing ‘opening the eyes of the blind, setting captives free, releasing those imprisoned in darkness.’

During Holy Week it is easy to live in a kind of bubble, just God and us, if I may put it that way. We think and pray — rightly — about our relationship with God, all that he has done and continues to do for us; but today’s readings remind us that it can never be just God and us. The whole world is involved. The little circle of the monastery; the bigger circle of the Church; both these are part of a bigger circle still, that of the entire globe. As Christians we have been given an immense privilege, but with privilege comes responsibility. We must work tirelessly for true justice — and break that jar of nard over some surprising feet.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail