St. Silouan the Athonite Mission Parish


"They Forgot the Body" 2015
by Fr Roberto Ubertino


This text heard in the Great Church during Great and Holy Week seems to be used by many as the divine exemption from kindness to the poor. Many resources both financial and of the heart have been removed from the poor to decorate churches quoting this Scripture. The question that begs to be asked is whether such a reading and interpretation is Orthodox. St John Chrysostom clearly states that "if one sees a person inclined to give money to decorate a church, we are to discourage him, rather give that resource to the hungry, for no one has ever been condemned for not decorating a church, but many have for not feeding the hungry." Yet we continue to risk condemnation. How is it so? What is the possible reading of this important text that can support St John Chrysostom bold statement of what ultimately saves or damns us?


Let us begin with the actual text and context of this passage. The event is narrated in both Mark and Luke in the context of the coming events of the Passion, Crucifixion and Resurrection. In both Gospels, the scene takes place at a dinner, at table. The Lord and His disciples are reclined, guests at a dinner. In Mark and John, Judas plays a key role along with a woman that John names Mary. The central figure is this woman who breaks the normative social ethic and enters a room full of men, not to serve them or clear the dishes but to perform an act of hospitality, normally reserved to the household master. She not only acts out of line but goes overboard. She pours, wipes her hair on his feet, she breaks the jar rendering it from then on useless for anything else. Those who witness this behavior, her caressing, perfuming, wiping her hair on the Lord's feet, are understandably taken aback. It is interesting to note that no one makes an objection on the obvious unacceptable behavior of this woman. The issues revolve around money, the cost of the perfume involved. Her action is set against love and concern for the poor.


By now, the disciples thought they knew Jesus well. He certainly would also be horrified at the salary for one person for one year wasted in such an unnecessary and undignified way. We could imagine Jesus agreeing with them. Here again, Jesus surprises us. Not only does he take the side of this woman and accept her unacceptable behavior, but he joins her to himself into what is most intimate: his Body, the Body of the incarnate word who will be broken for the remission of sin for the salvation of the world. Let her alone! He commands Judas! Let her alone, he says to his disciples! Let her alone! He tells all those around him, for what you can do to the poor all the time she has this one time done to me. He welcomes her touch, her caresses, and her perfume. Her actions become part of the Gospel of salvation, they are attached, and they have their full meaning now in the events of his passion and resurrection! Our sins crucify him, but our repentant humanity can only anoint his broken buried body. In anticipation, Jesus says, through her caresses and ointment she is brought to the place where the Resurrection will burst forth. A deed of kindness towards his body, a drop of perfume, a simple kiss, a caress with her hair wins her a place at the very heart of the economy of salvation. She holds in anticipation the broken buried risen Christ.


The disciples had forgotten the Body. They dreamed of a new Israel, a new world order, a place of power, but "they forgot the Body" of their Master who through Divine philanthropy was now the body of the poorest of all among them. The Lord takes the disciples' and Judas' cynical remark about helping the poor and in this text shows the profound link that exists between his body and the body of those who suffer, the poor, the sick, the orphans and widows of this world.


The Cappadocian fathers, in particular, will develop this whole social teaching on this understanding of the poor as a Body suffering, the Body of Christ the locum of where we touch both God and the poor. Rather than setting up a false distinction by having to choose one or the other, the Lord in welcoming the woman's tenderness shows how in her love for him alone she embraced all of humanity.


He is the poor one; He is the suffering one, which is why through all time the Church in imitation of this woman anoints the Body of the poor, who are Christ's vicars on earth.

The Body of the Lord that this woman ministers to is the Body of the Logos, in his Body that he has taken on – is included the Body of the poor, the Body of suffering humanity.


This Gospel does not ask us to choose one over another reality, as the rich young man was asked to give up wealth for the sake of eternal life, or to choose a greater from a lesser. The church is nowhere asked to choose Christ over the poor or the poor over Christ. Rather, the deep significance of the divine philanthropy is revealed to us in this Gospel.


What the church continues to do through the ages – the poor you always have among you – is understood in what the woman did – the Church cares always for the Body of Christ, as Mary did six days before the Resurrection in Bethany, the church does in the hospitals, streets, and byways of the world, pouring oil and wine on the wounds of suffering humanity, the Body of the Incarnate Word. Only a cynical view of reality would make this Gospel a justification to spend money on church buildings and structures and to neglect the body of those who suffer at its very doorsteps.


But there is a further reality that this Gospel opens to us. It is in regard to the mystery that the Body holds. It is no wonder that the Cappadocian Fathers, those who gave us the language to speak of the mystery of the Trinity, also developed the social teachings of the church as regarding the Body of the poor. Also St Maximus in the Church Mystagogy reminds us, the Body of God and the Body of the poor man are one. We continue to bypass the Body seeking spiritual healing as if the broken, suffering, buried body of Christ was a historical accident. The resurrection and the divinization that are offered to all humanity sprung from the Body that a woman anointed in anticipation of this broken and bruised body burial. It is not only the Body of Christ, the Body of the poor, but also our own Body that we neglect in pursuit of pseudo-spiritualities. In many ways, we seem to have forgotten the Body. No wonder we don't see the poor and use this Gospel to love a building rather than the Body it is meant to house.

- top -

© 2015 All rights reserved.