The Holy Week Shadows of St. Joseph: Holy Monday

The first of several reflections on St. Joseph by Father Raymond de Souza for your Holy Week contemplations.

The Anointing at Bethany.
The Anointing at Bethany. (photo: Peter Paul Rubens and Anthony Van Dyck in 1618 / Public Domain)

In his apostolic letter for the beginning of the Year of St. Joseph, Pope Francis cites Polish author Jan Dobraczyński. The Holy Father explains that his novel, The Shadow of the Father, “uses the evocative image of a shadow to define Joseph. In his relationship to Jesus, Joseph was the earthly shadow of the heavenly Father: he watched over him and protected him, never leaving him to go his own way.” (Patris Corde 7)

Nevertheless, Joseph is not present in the Lord’s public life. Yet we might find St. Joseph during Holy Week, if we allow ourselves to imagine where his “shadow” may have fell upon Jesus in those most sacred days.

Six days before Passover Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus was, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. They gave a dinner for him there, and Martha served, while Lazarus was one of those reclining at table with him. Mary took a liter of costly perfumed oil made from genuine aromatic nard and anointed the feet of Jesus and dried them with her hair; the house was filled with the fragrance of the oil (John 12:1-3).

The Gospel for Monday of Holy Week gives us a domestic scene, Jesus at home, as it were, with his friends Mary, Martha and Lazarus. It seems that when Jesus came to Jerusalem on pilgrimage that he would at least visit, if not stay with, his friends at Bethany, just two miles from the holy city. 

Mary anoints Jesus with costly nard, and the entire house is filled with the fragrance. Judas objects; Jesus explains that it is in anticipation of His death, now just days away. 

Commenting on the fragrance that filled the house, St. Augustine wrote, “The world is filled with the fame of a good character: for a good character is like a sweet scent. … Through the good, the name of the Lord is honored” (In Io. Evang. tr. 50, 7). 

The primary “good character” at Bethany was the Lord Jesus Himself. It was also the home of a holy family, Mary, Martha and Lazarus. Their holiness filled the house with a sweet scent, too.

Jesus was at home at Bethany. Surely it reminded Him of the home in Nazareth, where the Holy Family dwelt together in the sweet scent of holiness. It was St. Joseph who provided that holy home for Jesus there, as had beforehand in Egypt and Bethlehem. 

It was Joseph who provided for Jesus and Mary the experience of what would be later be called a “domestic church” – a family in which God is happy to “pitch his tent” (John 1:14). In these last days before His passion, Jesus enjoys at Bethany what He lived for so many years in Nazareth. Perhaps He feels in particular the absence of Joseph, whose own fragrance Jesus learned as an infant, a fragrance He would acquire as He grew in wisdom and stature (cf. Luke 2:52).

The perfumed nard that Mary lavishes upon Jesus is another shadow of Joseph. One of the saint’s symbols is the spikenard, sometime depicted as flowering upon his staff. Pope Francis has a spikenard on his papal coat-of-arms to represent St. Joseph. 

Did the anointing with nard remind Jesus of the stories that St. Joseph told Jesus about His birth, and the visit of the Magi? How strange that they would give a little baby – a newborn king no less! – myrrh (Matthew 2:11), which is used to prepare bodies for death. On the cross, myrrh would be mixed with wine and offered to Jesus (cf. Mark 15:23), and Nicodemus would bring a hundred pounds of myrrh and aloes for the burial (John 19:39).

The fragrance that fills the house is the joy of gospel fellowship – and a foretaste of death. Jesus experiences both together now in Bethany; Joseph first experienced them together in Bethlehem.

Palm Sunday