Ampleforth Abbey

14 December 2017

Magdalene wiping Jesus' feet

Homily preached at the Conventual Mass on Sunday 16th June 2013 by Fr Gabriel Everitt OSB. Fr Gabriel is Headmaster of Ampleforth College.

There is a story of a man who lived a notoriously bad life – very dissolute and he hurt many people. He was once asked if he had no fear of God and of God’s judgement; to which he replied: ‘Not at all, I will be sure to repent at the end; God will then have to forgive me. It’s his job’. I wonder what you think of that – maybe that the man was being, to say the least, somewhat complacent and presumptuous. The story continues that he was killed shortly afterwards in an accident and that as the lorry ploughed into his car, his last words were ... well, they do not bear repeating in the Abbey Church, but let us say that they were words of shock and anger, not a prayer for repentance.

I suppose that he was right in a way, that it is God’s job to forgive, but for us the question is always do we truly know our need of that forgiveness and do we have the courage and the humility to receive it?

There is a beautiful story at the heart of today’s Gospel reading rather different from the tawdry tale at the beginning of this homily, but it is also quite strange and maybe even a bit disturbing. Jesus is at the house of Simon, a good man, but quite prim and proper and maybe just a little limited in his vision and judgement. A woman with a bad name, a prostitute one takes it, comes in and creates a most embarrassing scene – weeping, wiping Jesus’ feet with her hair, and worse kissing them and anointing them. What gets Simon is that Jesus is allowing her to do this, a non respectable person, a woman with a bad name. It does not look good and it spoils a respectable party into which perhaps has gone a lot of planning and a big desire to get it right. I think we can sort of see Simon’s point.

However, what I think is really strange in the story is Jesus’ answer to Simon. He does not say, as perhaps we might expect, that it is terribly important and good and the right thing to do, especially for respectable and well connected people, to be polite and understanding with rather embarrassing and non respectable people and to show them every kindness and sympathy.

Instead he says that what the woman is doing is good and right and a beautiful thing to do, because she has been forgiven. And we know that she has been forgiven because of the love that she has shown.

Now why this is strange, is that this is not at all what we think about as the cause of love. We think we love someone or something because we are attracted to them or it. Indeed I wonder if Simon is cross because a prostitute seems to be soliciting Jesus as we say, making a pass at him, and Jesus was not doing what Simon thought a holy man should do and repelling her.

Jesus sees her love not as an attraction but as the sign of her repentance and of her forgiveness. It is the extravagant sign of a love that has first been shown to her, that she has received and which has the power to transform her life. Does that have anything to say to us?

Many of you – maybe even most – will have seen on stage or screen the astonishingly popular musical adaptation of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. It tells a story of Valjean, to whom life dealt a poor hand and whose life after long brutalising imprisonment is in the balance between good and evil. He steals but the person from whom he steals, a bishop (as a bishop an apostle and messenger of the reconciliation of God) forgives him. He goes on to live a beautiful poignantly good life, facing all the meanness and the tragedy that there always is in life and turning it to the good. His forgiveness becomes for him a power of love. He loves because he has been forgiven. The antihero in the story, Javert, Valjean’s relentless and implacable pursuer, goes exactly the other way – he cannot accept forgiveness and so for him forgiveness becomes a power of death. So there is a choice.

This is the importance of the confession thing, of being honest about ourselves, about the long hard look. It is God’s job to forgive us, more than that it is his very nature and his love, his very being. It is our job to let this forgiveness be in us a power of good and a power of love.