While watching the news and reflecting on the election of the new Pope, I cannot help but be struck with curiosity about a picture of the newest Papal leader washing someone’s feet. At first I thought this was a recent photograph, but it seems this occurred many years ago. So who is this new leader of the Roman Catholic Church? It seems he is a humble man whose promotion has sparked hope among many individuals and groups who did not feel they had a voice within the Catholic Church in years past
Francis, the first Jesuit pope and first non-European since the Middle Ages, decided to call himself Francis after St. Francis of Assisi, the humble friar who dedicated his life to helping the poor. On his first day on the job, Pope Francis not only returned to the Vatican-owned residence to pick up his luggage and pay the bill himself, he thanked every worker there, each by name. The new pontiff brings a common touch. The son of middle-class Italian immigrants, he denied himself the luxuries that previous cardinals in Buenos Aires enjoyed. He lived in a simple apartment, often rode the bus to work, cooked his own meals and regularly visited the slums that ring Argentina’s capital.
As Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, he showed compassion for the victims of HIV-AIDS and in 2001, visited a hospice to kiss and wash the feet of 12 AIDS patients. In 2008, he also washed the feet of 12 recovering drug addicts at a rehabilitation center in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
It is these vivid images of humility and service which remind me of the Bible reading for today:
12:1 Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 12:2 There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. 12:3 Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. 12:4 But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, 12:5 “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” 12:6 (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) 12:7 Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. 12:8 You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”
The new Pope, in his humble actions as the new leader of an often troubled Church, reminds me of Mary. Though she was considered no one special, and her introduction is far less publicized than the election of Pope Francis, her role in the recognition of Jesus, as Savior, is no less crucial to our salvation.
Introducing Mary, Extravagant Anointer of Jesus
Today, Mary is the one whose role it is to introduce Jesus, our special guest. Who is she, the introducer? She is the sister of Martha and Lazarus. We read this John text with Luke 10:38-42 in our minds. There we are told that Jesus stopped “at a certain village” (Bethany?) and was served a meal in the home of two sisters, Martha and Mary. Martha bustled around serving in a worried, distracted manner. Mary sat at his feet listening to what he was saying. Jesus praises Mary for choosing “the better part which will not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:42).
There are several accounts of women who anointed Jesus in the gospels. There is the “sinful woman” in Luke 7:36-50 who crashes a dinner at the home of one of the Pharisees. She brings an alabaster jar of ointment and anoints Jesus’ feet with ointment, tears, and kisses. Mark 14:3-9 and Matthew 26:6-13 tell the identical story of an unnamed woman who brings an alabaster jar of very expensive ointment and pours the ointment on Jesus’ head as he dines at the home of Simon the leper in Bethany. Both the accounts in Mark and Matthew, like this one, are sandwiched between the plotting of Jesus’ enemies to kill him (Mark 14:1-2) and Judas Iscariot leaving the dinner to go to the chief priests to betray Jesus (Mark 14:10-11).
Who is this Mary who introduces Jesus in John 12? She is Mary, the sister of Lazarus. The meal is held at the home of Lazarus whom John specifies was the man Jesus had raised from the dead (John 12:1). She has sat at his feet and now anoints his feet. She hasn’t misunderstood his title or misread his résumé. She knows exactly who he is and the kind of honor he is due. He deserves an act of extravagant holiness. The smell of perfume amid the stench of betrayal, jealousy, and looming violence. A sweet moment of stillness amid a gathering storm. An outpouring of homage amid the onslaught of hatred.
Will the new Pope continue with a humble heart, just like Mary, and let his actions honor our Holy Father? No one but Him who guides us, truly knows. But if by choosing to begin his Papal legacy with actions that mirror, and honor, our Heavenly Father, then I hope this will be a wiser, more honest and humble, leader for the Roman Catholic church, and for Catholics worldwide.