The Fourth Gospel is a richly veined mine in which we can uncover deep insights into the person and meaning of Jesus, and into the nature of discipleship. In John’s story there are two events which occur in the last week of Jesus’ life which are closely linked. The wider context for each is the celebration of Passover, the immediate setting a meal. Each event contains a symbolic gesture. Mary of Bethany anoints the feet of Jesus and dries them with her hair. Jesus washes the feet of his disciples and dries them with a towel. Together the episodes illustrate the generosity and self-giving of Jesus, and invite a similar response from his friends and disciples.
The first narrative takes place in the village of Bethany near Jerusalem. It is the place where Jesus has recently raised his friend Lazarus to life, a moment of breath-taking drama. His visit is fraught with danger, for he is a marked man. His action in giving life to Lazarus has led the Jewish authorities to decide formally on his death. Against this backcloth there is a celebration meal. Lazarus reclines at table. Martha serves. Mary, the other sister, steals the limelight as she enters with a pound of very costly ointment, and without speaking a word anoints the feet of Jesus and wipes them with her hair. Both actions are highly unusual in that culture. The house is filled with the scent of the perfume. Judas objects to her extravagance, suggesting that she should have given the money to the poor. But Jesus defends her, reminding them that the poor are always there, whereas he won’t be. He then forges a link between her action and his imminent death and burial.
Mary’s action is firstly an expression of gratitude at the restoration of her brother to the family. It captures the joy of a family reunited through the life-giving action of Jesus. It is an unrestrained expression of her love for Jesus, her devotion and commitment, her belief in him as ‘the resurrection and the life’. Her gesture is costly, lavish and extravagant. It communicates the reckless totality of her self-giving. It mirrors the generosity of Jesus, his extravagant love to the end and the uttermost (Jn 13:1). Mary somehow perceives that Jesus’ action in giving life to her brother will lead to his death, which will be a source of life for all of us.
There is an ominous solemnity about the opening of the second narrative, as the disciples gather with Jesus for their final meal together, now that the ‘hour’ has come. Jesus is fully aware of where he comes from, where he is going, what he is about. He is in control of the unfolding story. Jesus rises from table, and with studied, almost liturgical deliberation, removes his outer garments, takes a towel and wraps it round his waist. Like a servant or slave he pours water into a basin and carefully sets about washing the feet of his disciples, wiping them dry with the towel. So far he has not spoken a word. Simon Peter struggles to cope with this unexpected reversal of roles which subverts the social conventions of the day. Like Judas at Bethany, he misses the point, and objects to what is taking place, categorically refusing to allow Jesus to wash his feet. Jesus insists, observing that otherwise Peter won’t be able to share his heritage and be part of his company. Peter relents and begs Jesus to wash him entirely.
Having completed the washing of the disciples’ feet, Jesus puts his outer garments back on and returns to the table. This washing, this act of humble service, self-effacement and devotion, performed for disciples who in their fragility do not understand, one of whom is a traitor, is symbolic. It is a prophetic gesture. It points to his coming death. It is a kind of commentary which reveals the significance of the events of the following day, events through which Jesus expresses the depth of his love and brings his mission to completion. The good shepherd gives his life for his sheep.
These twin stories reveal to us the love of Jesus for us, his self-forgetful and generous love, his not counting the cost, his passion that we should be drawn from death into the circle of God’s life and love, and become children of the Father. His walking to Bethany, like his walking to Calvary, is an expression of his life-giving friendship. This is Jesus; this is what he is about.
Mary illustrates the meaning of discipleship, the discipleship of friendship. Jesus is at the centre of her life, whatever others may think. She gives her all. The perfume container is empty. She keeps nothing for herself. Jesus at the supper goes on to tell his disciples that they should follow his example of self-giving service. It is the practical way to show our love for one another.
Generosity and service are outstanding characteristics of Don Bosco. He vowed to give his last breath for the young. Nothing was too much trouble. He used his many gifts. He gave his time and energy. He suffered misunderstanding, criticism, anxiety, even death threats. Young people were at the centre of his thinking, his planning, his begging, his praying. His perfume container was empty. He was completely at their service. Anything he could do to help, he would do, no matter how ordinary, menial, or exhausting. He understood his life’s meaning in terms of generous service.
I have met many people who follow Jesus in Don Bosco’s way, generously serving the young and one another. Some are Salesians with whom I have been privileged to live and work, people who are sensitive to the needs of others, and who put themselves out to be of assistance. Others have been young volunteers, cheerful in their availability well beyond the call of duty, in order to respond to the needs of the young people who visited the centre. To be in contact with such people is a wonderful experience, stimulating, enriching, challenging.
The symbols of the empty perfume container and the basin of water transcend time and culture, and continue to speak powerfully to us today about Jesus and about our Salesian way of following him.