Counting forward from today, it is six days until Easter. Presumably that accounts for the choice of today’s Gospel (John 12:1-11) which begins: Six days before Passover Jesus came to Bethany. Today's Gospel for this Monday of Holy Week does more than establish a chronology, however. It also sets a certain mood for this week. Famously, it describes how Mary, the sister of Lazarus and Martha, anointed Jesus with expensive perfume. When her extravagance was criticized, Jesus defended her action by referring it to his upcoming burial.
Ritual, by its nature, is inherently somewhat extravagant. So, typically on this day, I have preached about this as an introduction to what we do during Holy Week. Like Mary, the Church this week traditionally holds nothing back, employing all the rich symbols of the liturgy to invite and enable us to enter as fully as humanly possible into the drama of Christ’s passion, death, and resurrection, so that we may more fully participate in its benefits.
Things are obviously different this year, however, when the opportunity to participate in these extravagant sacred rites, that are normally so filled with ritual power and symbolic meaning, is necessarily confined to passive participation via visual media, and when the rites themselves are being celebrated in a simpler, somewhat stripped down form that is appropriate for these extraordinary circumstances
So this year there is perhaps a different lesson we should take from today's Gospel. Because of circumstances beyond our control, we are unable to engage in the ritual extravagance liturgy in general and this week in particular calls for. We are, however, increasingly being called to the ritual of wasting not perfume but time.
Americans are activists, historically the practitioner's of Max Weber's "Protestant ethic" in its most vulgarized form. This is as true, sorry to say, of American Catholics as of American Protestants. Combined with a perverse desire to maintain as much a facade of "business as usual" as possible, the result is a widespread temptation to keep being "productive" during this enforced period of slowdown.
Now being "productive" is not a bad thing, and there is always some work to be done, work that ought to be done. Even so, is this slowdown not also an opportunity to rediscover other, less "productive" ways of spending one's time, other things to care about, new things to appreciate?
Bereft of the company of friends, is this instead a good time to celebrate friendship in more tranquil ways - in extended, unhurried, unbusinesslike phone conversations, for example, and perhaps even recovering the almost lost art of letter-writing?
Bereft of the constant stimulation of activity, is this instead a good time to rediscover other, more inward sources of stimulation, such as, for example, the increasingly lost art of reading real books?
Bereft of full participation in the Church's liturgy, is this instead a good time to relearn other more reflective, more meditative forms of prayer, more consciously cultivating one's appreciation of and relationship to the indwelling of the Holy Spirit within each one of us?