Crosses of Hope and Extravagant Gestures of Love

The Lenten season is a journey with spiritual twists and turns. Various models of fidelity and faith help us unfold God’s mystery within us as we trod into Holy Week and Easter. Along the way, the Solemnity of Saint Joseph on March 19 models for us that our dreams may open our journey toward freedom and life. Joseph dares to rely on such dreams for the benefit of his family. Also along the Lenten way, Jesus overturns the tables in the temple. Later, he shows us that even a grain of wheat must fall to the earth and die. Life springs up in the most unexpected places, especially in the human heart that searches for meaning, renewal, and forgiveness.

There is one moment in the Lenten journey that captures my heart this year. On Monday of Holy Week, in John 12:1-11, we eavesdrop on a scene that is tender and fulfilling. Mary anoints the feet of Jesus at a dinner to honor Lazarus, whom Jesus raised from the dead. In a gesture both lavish and extravagant, she uses costly perfumed oil made of genuine aromatic nard. It is an act of vulnerability, of longing to be near the Master, of sheer surrender to love. Mary’s gratefulness for Lazarus being raised from the dead is literally poured on the feet of Jesus. Her hair becomes a towel, and the aroma of the oil remains within the strands of her curls and on Jesus’ feet. This gesture is a preview of Jesus’ death when his body will be cleansed and anointed, the fragrance of sacred oil filling the hearts of his loved ones on his burial day. The scent will remain on his followers well into the day of resurrection.

Mary’s open expression of tenderness is also seen through eyes other than love. Judas, who balks at the thought of such a waste of money and this expression of compassion, believes the oil should be sold and the money given to the poor. His protest at the table gives him away, as he will sell Jesus’ whereabouts for a few coins on the night before Jesus dies. The paradoxes in this simple dinner scene wash over us as we prepare for the sacred Triduum. We desire to surrender to Jesus’ presence this Holy Week. We also know how much we continue to betray him in our hearts, our attitudes, and in our lives.

Mary, Martha, and Lazarus are all friends of Jesus. They model for us our stories of hope when life is difficult. Their relationship with Jesus tells us of the life that is possible when we let go of our control and move more closely into the life Jesus has for us. In Holy Week, these many models of faith reveal the paradoxes in our own lives and in our earthly relationships.

Mary’s extravagant gesture in using precious, costly oil speaks to me in new ways this year. Our aides, our nurses, and our medical team at Holy Cross House reveal to me this tender care and compassion. They show up to wash the bodies of men who cannot help themselves. They feed people not only at tables but with feeding tubes. They anoint feet daily when calluses and blisters seem to appear overnight. They are attentive to nighttime cries for help and daytime complaints from men who are slipping into dementia. They sit beside a bed to listen to stories and through the night with men who are afraid when they enter the hospital. They answer the emergency bells when our priests and brothers fall in their rooms. They bend down to assist and they stand up on behalf of those in their care. Their uniforms, hands, and even hair smell of ointments, soap, and medications. These men and women know what it means to give, to give again, to give until their sleepless nights get the best of them.

Waiting for a diagnosis becomes an image of the Lenten journey for so many of our men. This liminal time of uncertainty is the spiritual desert that exhausts us and questions our faith. Our team is there through such times, leaning on one another and anointing each other with stories, even laughter, about situations that occur. The Lenten season is real in this house all year long. New life sprouts up when people are exhausted and there is no other way out besides surrendering to Jesus Christ. Such surrender happens throughout our house.

As I lean into the story of Mary anointing Jesus’ feet, I think of a priest who came back home to die after a couple of days in the hospital. I still visualize his bony hands, the blue veins, and thin, grayish skin. The moment of anointing came, for me, when one of our staff sat at his bedside. She instinctively took his cold fingers and interlocked them with hers. I gazed at the contrast of her youthful, strong hands offering comfort and his elderly, weak hands letting go of life. She sat with his hand locked in hers. She kissed the back of his hand over and over again. The contrast of skin color, texture, race, gender, and age seemed to disappear in such an extravagant gesture of love. At that moment, the priest-scholar was leaning into the mystery of ultimate surrender. His life and his life work had led him to that last encounter, his hand clasped within the faith and security of the woman’s grasp. In the dim light of his room, she brought an eternal light of faith and trust. I saw Mary then, with her aromatic nard, and I could even smell it in the room. I will never forget that moment when Easter appeared in such a desert of loss and uncertainty. Still, when I think of this priest’s life I remember this tender presence of affirmation, of accompaniment, of death.

As we approach Holy Week, we all must learn to surrender to God. We do so in our ailments, in our addictions, in our enduring pain, in our unanswered questions. We surrender to God when we do not know how to raise our children or how to protect our elders. We surrender to God when our grandchildren make what we view as poor choices. We do so in order to learn how to live more faithfully in Christ Jesus and how to live such beauty in our everyday life. We learn how to enter the mystery of the cross and ease into the resurrection, not only at the end of our lives but today, as life is revealed to us. The Lenten season is a preview of our life in Christ Jesus at the end of our lives, but there is more grace here today than we know.

We may think the liturgies of Holy Week are only about the past or only about God, but if we have the courage to examine our lives, to allow love to flow within us, then we will see the presence of Christ challenging us to surrender to a fuller life. Our stubbornness, and our hardened hearts, give way to openness in love when we finally realize we cannot live our lives on our own. Sometimes it takes us a lifetime to understand such hope when anguish overwhelms us. Sometimes it takes a gentle soul to anoint us with a healing presence, a communion of listening, an ancient anointing of conversation, an interaction with a balm of faith. Most often, we learn this surrender when love flourishes in our hearts well before we take our last breath.

We believe that death gives way to life. The cross of Christ is our only hope. We are challenged to learn how to anoint others in our daily lives and work, to be with the sick, and to work diligently for the well-being of people who survive poverty and injustice. We learn to work among people in need of education, food, and housing. Our faith is meant to anoint others with love, to model for the people in our world that we believe in the dying and rising of Christ Jesus.

At the Easter Vigil, people across the world will be anointed in baptism and received into the Church. At this moment we will also renew our baptismal call to love and to serve, to pray, and to work for justice. The aroma of the chrism oil will fill our churches and remind us of Mary, who bent down to pour oil on the feet of Jesus. The scent of the oil will also remind us that death gives way to eternal life, that sin is forgiven, and that fear gives way to love.


Rev. Ronald Patrick Raab, CSC serves as religious superior of Holy Cross House, our retirement and medical facility at Notre Dame, Indiana. He is an award-winning author, blogger, and visual artist. Learn more:

Fr. Ron painted this image of the Crucified several years ago. His work has been printed across the globe in religious magazines and worship bulletins.

Published February 12, 2024

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