Dies Irae, John Donne and Luke 7:36–8:3

Over the past few weeks, I have posted some thoughts (here and here) on one of the lectionary readings for the coming Sunday. For those preparing sermons on Luke 7:36-8:3 for this Sunday, here’s a few thoughts.

Luke’s retelling involves three main characters: Simon the Pharisee (the inviter), Jesus (the invited), and a woman (the party-crasher). At the heart of the story is the issue of hospitality. Simon is a lousy host who has publicly humiliated his guest in failing to wash his feet, anoint his head, and to acknowledge his equal rank of rabbi by offering a kiss. The woman—the only one in the room who understands Jesus’ pain and his embarrassment by the Pharisee’s rudeness—realises that in Jesus the Shekinah has moved and now resides in a person. She alone shows the expected grace of a host. Jesus is an impolite guest who does the unthinkable, especially in a Middle Eastern culture—he attacks the quality of the hospitality. Even though he is probably embarrassed by the party-crasher’s gesture, he accepts it, and her, because he understands her motive. By the time Jesus finishes his parable, Simon and his mates are no longer angry with the woman. Their rage has turned towards Jesus. Upon him was the chastisement that brought her peace. In what is a foretaste of the cross, Jesus offers her a costly demonstration of unexpected love. In the words of William Williams, ‘What power has love but forgiveness?’And in that one action, he welcomes Simon and all who have ears to hear, into his own life.

There are a number of paintings that depict Luke’s homely scene. Julius Schnorr’s ‘Mary anoints Jesus’, and James Tissot’s ‘Mary anoints Jesus’ feet’ both serve as fine examples. There’s also Julius Schnoor’s moving woodcut, ‘Jesus Anointed by Sinful Woman’ originally printed in Das Buch der Bücher in Bilden. But it is some poetic reflections of this episode at Simon’s house that move me most. In her poem ‘In the Midst of the Company’, Janet Morley powerfully uses poetic license to recreate Luke’s painting from Jesus’ perspective.

In the midst of the company I sat alone,
and the hand of death took hold of me;
I was cold with secrecy,
and my God was far away.
For this fear did my mother conceive me,
and to seek this pain did I come forth?
Did her womb nourish me for the dust,
or her breasts, for me to drink bitterness?
O that my beloved would hold me
and gather me in her arms;
that the darkness of God might comfort me,
that this cup might pass me by.
I was desolate, and she came to me;
when there was neither hope nor help for pain
she was at my side;
in the shadow of the grave she has restored me.
My cup was spilling with betrayal,
but she has filled it with wine;
my face was wet with fear,
but she has anointed me with oil,
and my hair is damp with myrrh.
The scent of her love surrounds me;
it is more than I can bear.
She has touched me with authority;
in her hands I find strength.
For she acts on behalf of the broken,
and her silence is the voice of the unheard.
Though many murmur against her, I will praise her;
and in the name of the unremembered,
I will remember her.

The well-known thirteenth–century poem ‘Dies Irae’, thought to be written by Thomas of Celano, describes the day of judgement. Until about 35 years ago, the poem was used as a sequence (a chant sung or recited before the proclamation of the Gospel) in the Requiem Mass, and so, unsurprisingly, finds its way into the Requiem’s by Verdi and Mozart.

Stanzas 12-13 of the ‘Dies Irae’ express something of what might be going on here for Luke’s readers where Jesus’ welcome towards this woman encourages us to hope that as we move towards Jesus, we will discover one who has already moved towards us in and for grace.

I groan, as one guilty;
my face is red with shame;
spare, O God, a supplicant.
You who forgave Mary,
and heard the plea of the thief
have given hope to me also.

In Martin Luther’s words, we rediscover that ‘Thou art my righteousness and I am thy sin’. Our confidence rests, neither in our tears or in our zeal, but only in the gracious God. In Jesus Christ, we discover that grace is bloodied, despised and rejected, crushed for the iniquities of, and laden with punishment for, those who hide their faces from it. Never abstract or cheap, grace is a man groaning on a cross, dying, not only for those who would anoint him with precious perfume, but also for those who would stand by to hypocritically condemn; for those who know what they do and for those who don’t. Grace is God in his holy action, bearing the shame of desperate women and proud Pharisees on the killing tree.

Arms bare
bloodied sap,
stripped of all pretense,
simplicity giving way to strange beauty.
Alone, yet koinoniaed
Violence, yet concord
No form to desire this ugly tree
yet satisfied
the satisfaction of misplacement.
Its white crooked limbs stretch laboriously upward,
Longing …

A germ so long ago planted
out of season, yet for a time.
Once being about a business
Now being about a business … aching
forlorn and isolated,
rootedness in desiccated ground … and waiting …
Will it spring again?

Here I conclude with John Donne’s ‘A Hymn to God the Father’:

Wilt thou forgive that sin where I begun,
Which was my sin, though it were done before?
Wilt thou forgive that sin, through which I run,
And do run still, though still I do deplore?
When thou hast done, thou hast not done,
For I have more.

Wilt thou forgive that sin which I have won
Others to sin, and made my sin their door?
Wilt thou forgive that sin which I did shun
A year or two, but wallow’d in, a score?
When thou hast done, thou hast not done,
For I have more.

I have a sin of fear, that when I have spun
My last thread, I shall perish on the shore;
But swear by thyself, that at my death thy Son
Shall shine as he shines now, and heretofore;
And, having done that, thou hast done;
I fear no more.

Published in the June edition of Lectionary Homiletics.

Comments welcome here

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.