In his novel, The Power and the Glory, the novelist Graham Greene paints a powerful portrait of a priest who is a striking contrast to the ideal of what a priest should be. He was more than a bit rough around the edges and he was particular partial to whisky and in large quantities. The novel is set in a Mexican province which is bent on ridding itself of the catholic Church and its clergy. The Whisky Priest finds himself caught up in a persecution of the Church which he is far from capable of opposing – yet he felt compelled to perform his priestly duties against all odds and gradually his selfishness is transformed by the greater need to do the work of God. He is hunted by a police lieutenant who has made it his sworn ambition to arrest the priest and bring him to trial – which means certain death. There is an impending doom which has parallels with the hunting down of Jesus in the Gospel. As we read, we just know that he will be caught and in fact he is caught after a Judas figure betrays him. On the night before his execution, the whisky priest reviews his life and concludes that failure and hopelessness are the hallmarks of his priestly life. He was unable to see that, despite all his failings, God had been using him and he felt that his life had been a waste.
In a moving passage in the novel he felt only an immense disappointment because he had to go to God empty-handed, with nothing done at all. He realised that with more self-determination, restraint and courage he might easily have been a saint but now it was too late. He felt like someone who has missed happiness by seconds at an appointed place.
Missing happiness by seconds is an haunting phrase and there is no doubt that in all our lives there are such moments which are given to us but which we do not take. These are the If onlys of human life when a course of action, a decision, a chance to develop a human relationship, a failure of confidence or an opportunity to express how we really feel about someone we care about or love are not taken and we are left missing happiness by seconds at the appointed place. We leave it until it is too late. And if this is true of our human relationships it is often very true of our relationship with God. Few are the moments when we tell Him from our hearts how much He means to us. We may bombard Him with requests, petitions, desires but how often do we simply sit before Him and say, quietly, I love you.
Not so, however, in the Gospel we heard tonight which is John’s version of what happened at Bethany on the Monday before Good Friday. Mary took her chance when it was offered to her and, unlike the whisky priest found happiness by seconds at the appointed place. She demonstrated her love for our Lord by taking a pound of costly perfume and anointed his feet, wiping them with her hair.
In some ways this is quite a scandalous action because women in Judaism just didn’t act that way. It was also a brave action because she cared nothing about what people thought of her. It was also an extravagant action because the perfume was meant to be used sparingly. Mary holds none of it back – not for her a calculated demonstration of love that holds back in giving everything. This was a case of love giving everything, holding nothing back and not counting the cost.
There was, of course, one there who did exactly that and as is often the way in John’s Gospel we are given two contrasting viewpoints. If Mary was extravagant, Judas was calculating. In the other accounts of this incident as told by Matthew and Mark it is the disciples or some unnamed others who spoke out against her extravagance but John’s characteristic hatred of Judas led him to cast his enemy in the role. Judas protested that the perfume could have been sold and the money given to the poor – not that Judas cared about the poor, says John – after all he was a thief who stole from the common purse.
On the face of it, the words of Judas are fine words and sentiments – and somewhere deep in our hearts – had we not been told that it was Judas and were not so familiar with the rest of the story – we might have applauded him. After all, it could be said that it showed Judas had learned well the lessons of the gospel taught by his Master that the Good News was a Gospel for the poor, the unloved, the people who dwelt in the margins of polite society. The people we pass furtively with our eyes fixed elsewhere when we see them huddled in doorways in Central London.
But Judas was missing the point as he was to miss the point so tragically later that same week. One particular point he missed was that we do not do justice to the poor by simply throwing money at them. Far better, in fact, if we were to behave as Mary did and shower them with unconditional love because, at least then we would really engage with them and share their plight. There are times when I have simply thrown money into a proffered paper cup or onto a dirt-stained blanket and moved quickly on. I might feel philanthropic and pleased with my own generosity but the real moments of care have been when I have actually talked with them and put the money into their hands. I still remember such moments as rather special ones when either friendly banter or a smile with a word of concern has reaped the reward of opening up a real conversation. How much better it is when we actually talk with those who are down on their luck. They become real people and not just objects of charity and pity.
It is Mary and her action which can teach us so much about how we are with people rather than Judas with his fine sounding words. Those, like the people who run Manna or the Big Issue Foundation are often living sacrificial lives in the service of the poor because it is costing them everything.
Judas is also missing the point in another way; in that moment at the beginning of what was to be the darkest week of our Lord’s life Mary does something beautiful for God. She puts into the middle of that darkening situation a fragrance which time cannot obliterate. To this day, what she did in Bethany moves the heart, for like all true acts of love it adds a permanent legacy to the loveliness of life.
Not only that, but Mary shows that the Gospel is not just about moving us to service but also to Worship and that’s a very important lesson for us to learn, or be reminded of. We can all serve our fellow men and women – it is something that many are very good at. Kindness, Goodness towards neighbours, care of those in need are things to be encouraged and applauded but of themselves they are not enough.
I have often been told that all one needs to do to be considered as a Christian is to be good and kind. I remember that I once conducted a funeral when I was a curate of a man who gave generously from his rather vast wealth to many ‘good causes’ , most of which received a mention in the local newspaper. I was told that he was a Christian in the ‘practical sense of the word’. To my certain knowledge, he had never darkened the door of a church until his coffin came over the threshold and I dare say that the prayers we uttered then were amongst the first to have been said in his presence. I did not doubt his goodness as a human being but he was one of those who had missed happiness at the appointed place in the sense that he had failed to allow God to take his goodness and turn it into holiness. For that to happen there must be worship and worship demands an outpouring of love not to our fellow human beings but to God. Only when our love for God is generous, free and, like Mary’s, extravagant, will our service to others have any real meaning.
This Holy Week we are invited to tread with Jesus the Way of the Cross and to make it our Way – not in some sentimental act of piety but with a genuine desire to live sacrificial lives which as the poet T. S, Eliot insists should cost us not less than everything. For that is what it cost Jesus to demonstrate His love for us. On the Cross His life is poured out because we need to know such love in our own lives and for those lives.
It is a little bit like the approach to the poor and homeless. God could just throw his grace at us from afar and pass on – but he doesn’t. He stops and engages us with real compassion and shows us genuine love. We are not left untouched as he rushes by. Quite the reverse, for he reaches out from the Cross and embraces us with love.
How appropriate, therefore, that on this Monday of Holy Week that the Gospel reminds us that if we are to understand what Jesus did for us then we have to kneel with Mary in Bethany and catch something of her insight as she knelt before Jesus, pouring over His feet the ointment of her worship and caressing him with the strands of her love.
As we follow Him who did not count the cost of His love – let us not, by our lukewarm approach, count the cost of ours. Let us not miss our happiness at the appointed place but rather let us, with Mary, give of ourselves freely, and offer him totally, our hearts and our lives.