Meditation and Reflection

Holy Monday: cleansing, anointing and indignation


And Jesus went into the temple of God, and cast out all them that sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the moneychangers, and the seats of them that sold doves, And said unto them, It is written, My house shall be called the house of prayer; but ye have made it a den of thieves (Mt 21:12f).

The Messiah heralded an era of peace – not as the world gives, but as the Sermon on the Mount made manifest, a liberation from the violence which has cursed mankind since Cain murdered his brother Abel. The messianic peace confronts both the reality and the mentality of the rule of violence: both those who seek to destroy the breath of life, and those who imagine that evil repaid by evil is a righteous path of retaliation. In order to end this vicious circle, Jesus overrules the anxiety and terror which are used to justify counter-violence: we are not to repay evil with evil, but overcome evil with good.

But freedom from violence is not a renunciation of of power – including the power to use justifiable force. The way to lasting peace on earth is to love our enemies; and the way to love our enemies and cease our quarrels is to reject the eye-for-an-eye law of retaliation, and pray for them. But this love is not weak. In the act of cleansing the Temple, Jesus manifests intolerance, impatience and anger. He is not the benign ecumenical Christ of perpetual reconciliation that is forever ‘meek and mild’, graciously asking Mr Moneychanger, “Excuse me, Sir, but would you be so kind as to move your tables outside, because this is a house of prayer? Bless you.” No, her throws them over and drives out the unholy, destroying their trade and smashing their piles of money. The Messiah uses physical power to demonstrate the eschatological purpose of His coming (Isa 56:7; Jer 7:1-15).

In this violent call to repentance is a condemnation reserved for Israel, for her theft, murder, infidelity, blasphemy and idolatry. There is simply no point continuing the charade of Temple worship while your hearts are black with sin and the only words that fall from your lips are those of hypocrisy and deception. But no one is hurt or killed by this act of divine protest: it is not a justification to take up arms, but an exhortation to non-violent action wherever injustice and hypocrisy prevail.

For most Christians, Holy Monday is indistinguishable from last Monday, or the Monday before that. But today is day for reflecting on the greatest anointing of all – that of the Holy Spirit. Six days before the Passover..

Then took Mary a pound of ointment of spikenard, very costly, and anointed the feet of Jesus, and wiped his feet with her hair: and the house was filled with the odour of the ointment. Then saith one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son, which should betray him, Why was not this ointment sold for three hundred pence, and given to the poor? This he said, not that he cared for the poor; but because he was a thief, and had the bag, and bare what was put therein. Then said Jesus, Let her alone: against the day of my burying hath she kept this. For the poor always ye have with you; but me ye have not always (Jn 12:3-8).

Mary’s worship at the feet of Jesus was audacious and extravagant, but it was an act of faith and love: all she wanted to do was worship in her own way, which the disciples met with protestation and indignation. It’s a woman, you see. And not just a woman, but a mightily-sinning one.

And yet this woman’s actions and expressions teach the men a thing or two. She understands and apprehends on a different spiritual plane. They see the perfume and immediately think about the cost and absurd waste; she gently caresses her Lord’s ankles and toes, anoints them with a spiced aroma, and smells the scent of salvation. They want action; their mission is to feed the poor. She wants reflection; her heart’s desire is to worship.

And so the Christ, the Messiah, is anointed not by prophets or priests, but by but by a prostitute. And that is fitting in this revolutionary kingdom of God. Jesus said of this incident: “Wheresoever this gospel shall be preached throughout the whole world, this also that she hath done shall be spoken of for a memorial of her” (Mk 14:9). But Mary invariably gets lost somewhere between the palm leaves and Easter eggs.

Christians are called to be living sacrifice; to worship God daily in their actions and their words. This is becoming increasingly difficult in a context of increasing secularity confronted by a compromised church. But the witness of our extravagant devotion to the Lord is wholly dependent upon the purity and honesty of our lives: and that must be marked by humility and love, not by indignant demands for rights of equality or assertions of pride.

Let Caesar collect his taxes and make his laws: it is for us Christians to cleanse our temple and devote ourselves lavishly to the Lord, that we may find peace, joy and happiness; not to judge but to serve.