Monday 10th April 2006
Monday of Holy Week
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Holy Eucharist
John 12:1-11

This week we are looking at some major themes in the Holy Week story. Today's theme is Penitence.

In an age where human interest stories act as an antidote to existential sterility, where so many incidents are overtly or symbolically sexualised, we should see today's Gospel as a description of penitence and a foreshadowing of death.

The foreshadowing is easy enough: the Mary of the foot anointing is the Mary of the corpse anointing; and the Mary set to complete the post Sabbath anointing but who finds Jesus alive.

The idea of penitence is more difficult. We have a problem because we think of penitence as closed: we close our eyes; we make a secret confession to a priest; we say a prayer as an act of closure; we close the door of our soul against worldly wickedness and pray that it will hold fast.

But true Penitence is the outpouring of our pent up selves in an uncalculated, unconditional offer to God. Penitence is not a list of sins, it is an admission of unlimited dependence on God; penitence is not a contract, it is an act of unedited self expression.

When Mary broke open the jar of ointment she was breaking open all her pent up richness and poverty; she was giving everything knowing it was next to nothing; she was stretching for the things you can never say. Like all of us, she was probably hard put to it to separate where she had behaved well or badly. We might be better off not knowing what goes into ointment.

Catching on to Jesus she was connecting with the travel worn, swollen, aesthetically and intellectually disregarded feet, she was not positioning herself for a piece of theologically strategic interaction, she was, in the best way she knew how, giving way to Christ. For, in the end, that is what penitence is, it is giving way unconditionally to Our Lord.

Our reticence, of course, is because we think that penitence is all about sin and blame; we actually think, if we think about it at all, that the key emotional undercurrent in penitence is shame when in fact the underpinning of penitence is liberation in the gratitude for unconditional Grace. If we can see that the true meaning of penitence, of turning back to Christ, is the opening of ourselves to the Grace that He has won for us through His incarnation, death and Resurrection, then that might help us to be less constricted in our penitence.

God knows; and so the act of penitence is not some kind of infractional striptease; he doesn't need the strip and he doesn't need the tease. Neither do we.

Penitence, in the end, is the act of spontaneous, uncalculating, love-driven, human creation: falling unconditionally in love is a kind of penitence; Beethoven is a kind of penitence; and crying at the feet of Jesus, with our jar of worldly treasure, is also penitence because, like all soul liberating catharsis, penitence is not pain free.

I like to think that Mary did not unscrew the stopper from the jar of ointment but instead, as some of the translations have it, broke the jar so that when the ointment was all poured out over the feet of Jesus, she not only had to accumulate more ointment, she had to get a new jar.