This weekend, I’m going to the consecration of the new Bishop of the Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe, We meet the Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry on Friday morning. There’s a big farewell and welcome event on Friday evening to say goodbye to Bishop Pierre and welcome Bishop Mark. The consecration takes place on Saturday morning; if you want to follow this, click on this link .
Sunday’s Gospel describes Jesus having a meal with Lazarus, Martha and Mary (often identified as Mary Magdalene). Mary makes the extravagant gesture of anointing Jesus’ feet with costly ointment. Judas Iscariot objects to this as being wasteful.
Judas comes across as the realistic one – don’t waste money on expensive perfumed oil, give it to the poor – but Jesus condemns his attitude.
This may strike us as odd. After all, it’s realism – the ability to come up with practical solutions – that we tend to value. So, we might think that Judas has got a point.
But Jesus knows Judas’ true nature (and the Gospel points this out by indicating that he stole from the common purse). Jesus sees that Judas is posturing, taking the apparently moral high ground.
At this point, Mary’s gesture of love is more important to Jesus. This was difficult for Judas to accept and such a rejection of practicality may be difficult for us to take, as well. We worry, for instance, about balancing budgets, restoring and maintaining church buildings.
This brings us to wonder whether extravagant gestures of love are worthwhile. But at the heart of the Gospel is a supremely extravagant gesture of love: Christ offering his life on the Cross.
Of course, you might regard Christ’s example as being beyond our imitation. But there are many examples of self-less behaviour. One of the greatest comes from an extraordinary example from recent history. In June 1941, the composer Dmitri Shostakovich was working in the Leningrad Conservatoire. The sudden attack on the city by Germans – breaking the non-aggression pact they had made with the Russians – led to his evacuation, while many were trapped in the besieged city.
It is hard to imagine the scale of suffering. People were reduced to eating dogs, cats and rats. Dead, frozen bodies littered the streets and eventually the survivors lacked the strength to clear them away. 1.2 million people died. I have visited Leningrad (now known again as St Petersburg) and seen a cemetery where half a million are buried.
While away from the city physically, Shostakovich was not absent in spirit. During the time of the siege he composed his great 7th Symphony, which premiered to great acclaim in Moscow, London, and New York. But the premiere that he most desired was one in Leningrad.
Copies of the sheet music were smuggled into the city but there were few musicians left who might perform it. About twenty from the Radiokom orchestra, which had not been evacuated, remained.
They began rehearsing, although they were too weak do so for more than fifteen minutes at a time. During rehearsals, musicians often fainted from hunger or cold. They never performed the whole symphony until the actual performance.
In one incredible episode, a percussionist was reported dead, and the conductor, who needed him desperately for the symphony, went to the mortuary to check. He saw movement in one stack of corpses, and it was his percussionist, still alive but who had been too weak to protest at being carted off with the dead. The conductor rescued him and he went on to play in the performance.
The date of the performance was August 9, 1942. The starving orchestra in Leningrad performed the entire Symphony Number 7 for their audience of emaciated but defiant fellow citizens in an epic triumph of the human spirit. This was the exact date Hitler had boasted he would have a victory dinner in the Hotel Astoria to celebrate conquering Leningrad.
This gesture could seem to be useless – not realistic. After all, it didn’t shorten the siege, provide food or defeat the Nazis. Moreover, three members of the orchestra died during rehearsals.
However, this helped the people of Leningrad endure until their liberation. Perhaps, in the same way, Mary’s gesture helped Jesus to get through what he had to endure; he knew he was going to his death.
Simple expressions of love like those between Mary and Jesus, between people who love each other, are what sustain us in our darkest moments.