Agents of Hope
When there are two Bible readings in a church service, usually they are two different stories. However, what I want us to do this afternoon is to read two different versions of the same story. They are clearly describing the same event, but each tells it slightly differently. So my wife, June, is going to read Gospel writer Matthew’s account of an evening Jesus spent in Bethany and Yvonne Heath is going to read St John’s account of the same event.
And I want to do this because Matthew poses a question that those of us who have experienced the death of a child often find ourselves asking, and because John, if not providing the answer, at least for me provides an answer.
Six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus was, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. There they made him a supper; Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at table with him. Mary took a pound of costly ointment of pure nard and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair; and the house was filled with the fragrance of the ointment. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (he who was to betray him), said, “Why was this ointment not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?” This he said, not because he cared for the poor but because he was a thief, and as he had the money box he used to take what was put into it. Jesus said, “Let her alone, let her keep it for the day of my burial. The poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me.”
Matthew 26: 6 – 13
Now when Jesus was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, a woman came up to him with an alabaster flask of very expensive ointment, and she poured it on his head, as he sat at table. But when the disciples saw it, they were indignant, saying, “Why this waste? For this ointment might have been sold for a large sum, and given to the poor.” But Jesus, aware of this, said to them, “Why do you trouble the woman? For she has done a beautiful thing to me. For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me. In pouring this ointment on my body she has done it to prepare me for burial. Truly, I say to you, where-ever this gospel is preached in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.”
John 12: 1 – 8
Two versions of the same story. That they differ should not worry us. If yesterday, a Portsmouth supporter sat down to watch the Cup Final with a Cardiff supporter, both would have seen the same event – but both would tell it very differently!
What is common to our two Bible stories is that one evening in Bethany, a village not far from Jerusalem, a woman poured very expensive ointment over Jesus shortly before his death – and it is worth our while pausing to take in the fact that God the Father knows exactly what it is to watch his child die; he witnessed Jesus’ crucifixion – a woman anoints Jesus in a symbolic act against the day of his burial.
This story is about death.
Matthew puts this question that certainly I, and I guess most people who have experienced the death of a child of whatever age – for your children are still your children no matter whether they are babes, or adults, or anywhere in between – a question I think we will all have asked. Matthew reports the disciples asking of the use of this very expensive ointment, “Why this waste?”
There is something just plain wrong when a child dies before his or her parents or grandparents, before his aunts and uncles, while with his or her siblings he or she has so much potential to fulfil. “Why this waste?”
There is something just plain wrong, and all the stock answers – God wanted the child to himself; it was a blessing in disguise; it must be for a purpose; it must have been meant – all the stock platitudes strike me not just as ill-informed rubbish, but ill-informed and hurtful rubbish.
So, “Why this waste?”
Certainly this is a question I asked myself. Our son, Aidan, died in a cot death at the age of one month. What is the point of a life of one month? “Why this waste?”
I searched for an answer to that question and I found it in a most unlikely place. I was fortunate for I found it within a year, but for many it can take much longer.
Aidan died aged one month in 1977. The following year, 1978, Pope Paul VI died. He was a very old man, who seldom seemed to smile, and if you are Roman Catholic, I hope you will forgive me if I say the image he portrayed in his last years was of an old and frail Church – a dour, unsmiling Church.
No life is ever wasted if we make something of it. It doesn’t take away the pain, but it does bring something from it.
In his stead, the Roman Catholic Conclave elected Cardinal Albino Luciani as Pope John Paul I. And I can vividly remember seeing him come out onto the balcony at the Vatican, beaming from ear to ear, and immediately the Roman Catholic Church was lit up – it had its smile back. Indeed, John Paul I is known as “Il Papa del Sorriso” – the smiling Pope, or” Il Sorriso di Dio” – God’s smile.
One month later he was dead.
It was a quite shattering experience, one greeted with a sense of disbelief across the world. A reign that lasted just one month – what is the point of that?
In his place the Conclave elected Karol Wojtyla as Pope John Paul II. Karol Wojtyla was the first non-Italian Pope since the 1520s. He was also the first Polish Pope – a man who came to adulthood in Nazi occupied Poland. And if you are old enough to remember his early years, you will remember how he electrified the Roman Catholic Church and indeed millions across the world.
He would not have been elected had it not been for Pope John Paul I, the man who had just one month’s life as Pope. Indeed, he wasn’t. John Paul II may have been the electric spark, but John Paul I was the smile that made it possible - a one month life as Pope that changed the Church.
In this most unlikely chain of events, I came to see that a one-month life was not a waste, as long as something comes from it.
And that is what St John sees in his account of the anointing of Jesus at Bethany against his burial. St John finds an answer to St Matthew’s question, “Why this waste?” In both stories the very expensive ointment is poured out, gone, finished, almost like a death in itself.
We pray that in your sadness, in perhaps your anger, or bewilderment, you may be helped beyond “Why this waste?”, and allow your much loved child or grandchild, your much loved brother or sister, your much loved niece or nephew, friend or colleague – the child whom you remember especially today– that you allow your child to fill your home with fragrance and so perfume the rest of your lives that you too may be ‘agents of hope’.
But St John sees something that St Matthew hasn’t. St John writes, “Mary took a pound of costly ointment of pure nard and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair; and the house was filled with the fragrance of the ointment.”
“And the house was filled with the fragrance of the ointment.”
That is not why the jar was broken – it was broken open to anoint Jesus against his burial, but its effect was to perfume the whole house. An effect that St John understood as he moved on from where Matthew had got stuck, with “Why this waste?” to find the unexpected effect of the breaking open of the jar – that it filled the house with fragrance.
And that has been my experience. When a curious chain of events allowed me to get beyond, “Why this waste?” I found that, far from pointless, our son’s brief earthly life has perfumed the whole of the rest of our lives.
Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi, wrote this earlier this year, “Transform suffering. When bad things happen, use them to sensitise you to the pain of others. The greatest people I know – people who survived tragedy and became stronger as a result – did not ask ‘Who did this to me?’ Instead, they asked “What does this allow me to do that I could not have done before?” They refused to become victims of circumstance. They became, instead, agents of hope.”
That has been our experience. June and I are what we are today, because our son died. He has perfumed our lives and I hope made us ‘agents of hope’ for you this afternoon.