A Sermon for Monday of Holy Week
It was all over the news last week. A new gospel had been discovered, the “Gospel of Judas,” and it was going to change the way people thought about Judas Iscariot and Jesus Christ. The news stories typically played up a brief passage in this newly-discovered ancient text that claimed Jesus had instructed Judas to betray Him. In this version Judas received special, secret knowledge from the Savior and was promised an eternal reward far greater than that of the other apostles.
What the news accounts did not usually emphasize, however, was the fact that a well-known heretical group had composed this newfound “gospel” more than a century after the death of their hero. It tells us absolutely nothing new about the historical Judas Iscariot or Jesus of Nazareth. “The Gospel of Judas” was written for Gnostics, not mainstream Christians, and bears little resemblance to the authentic gospels in our New Testament. The Judas gospel is a typical Gnostic text, featuring arcane speculations about the structure of the cosmos, detailed genealogies of the angelic host, and—most significantly--secret knowledge of how the Gnostic could liberate his spirit from the prison of his physical body and achieve salvation by spiritual reunion with “the One.” You see, the last thing a Gnostic “savior” would want to do is “save the world.” For ancient Gnostics the material world we inhabit is evil by nature and cannot be saved. They considered their physical bodies merely traps that ensnared the divine sparks they carried within them. The Gnostic Redeemer was a mythical figure who came down from Heaven to show them how to escape from their physical bodies forever. In short, the message of the Gospel of Judas is “Beam me up, Scotty. This place is beyond saving!”
The real Jesus is very different. Tonight’s Gospel lesson is no Gnostic “redeemer myth.” It is the story of an authentic human being—the authentic human being—spending the evening with close personal friends, bonds of affection strengthened over a family meal. Of course, this gathering wasn’t exactly a typical dinner party. After all Lazarus was there, a living, breathing testimony to the importance our Lord placed upon the life of the body. Mary and Martha were also present, eyewitnesses to the divine power of their friend, the Man who is Himself “the Resurrection and the Life.”
In the end Mary could no longer contain her gratitude for Christ’s gift of her brother’s life. She “took a pound of expensive ointment made from pure nard, and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.” How astonishingly un-Gnostic of Mary! Her gesture is a feast for the senses. St. John stresses touch and smell here. We can practically feel the luxuriant anointment on our skin and smell its sweet fragrance. And the image of Mary tenderly wiping the Lord’s feet with her hair is so sensuous as to be almost embarrassing! No one who reads this passage can mistake Christianity for a faith that considers the human body something evil to be abandoned as soon as possible! The Lord's Body is a thing to be cherished, even as it is anointed ahead of time for burial. Mary's action is an enacted love poem to the Incarnation.
The saving acts of Christ that we celebrate this week are the saving acts of God in history, the Redeemer's re-sanctification of the day-to-day world that you and I inhabit. Holy Week is every bit as much about flesh and blood as it is about spirit. On Thursday night Jesus will break real bread and bless real wine and give it to His disciples, and it will become His very Flesh and Blood. On Friday Christ’s precious Body will be flayed with a cat-o-nine-tails and pierced by thorns and nails and a spear. His life-blood will soak into the splintered wood of a Roman cross and His breath will give out with a cry. His corpse will be wrapped in coarse linen and laid in a tomb with seventy-five pounds of aromatic aloes and myrrh. And finally on Easter Sunday, after the Lord of Creation has triumphed over Death by rising bodily from the grave--the very stones reverberating with the power of absolute Life--the risen Christ will go to the upper room, sit down again with His friends and enjoy a nice fish dinner!
Make no mistake about it--we worship an embodied Savior, the One who "became flesh and dwelt among us." And when Christ redeemed us He redeemed the whole of us: body, soul and spirit. In a few moments He will offer us the whole of Himself, His Body, soul, spirit and divinity, in the Blessed Sacrament of the altar--just as He offered up the whole of His Being on Mt. Calvary. Our response to Christ's self-giving love must be bodily as well as spiritual. In the words of the letter to the Hebrews "let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverence the race that is set before us." May God grant us the grace to respond to Christ’s gift of life with the total devotion modeled by St. Mary of Bethany on Monday of that first Holy Week, joining her on our knees in adoration. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.