The Gospel this evening presents us with the story of the sinful woman anointing Jesus with a beautiful scenting oil. It was typical at that time to anoint a body in death. Jesus takes this good work by the woman as an act of love that prepares him for what lies ahead, including his death. He will be treated terribly; he will enter great darkness, failure and rejection. But here is the woman, offering an act of love that clearly touched Jesus deeply. More than Judas’ claim to want to help the poor and do great things, Jesus took the woman’s deed to him as an expression of love that brought light and love to him, strengthening him to face what lay ahead of him.
As we celebrate the Novena, I am grateful to the Pioneers. They do not want to do big gestures. Like the woman in the Gospel, their way is the silent, loving accompaniment of those who are severely tempted by drink. You do so in three ways.
Prayer. Prayer reaches where we cannot go. So many situations in our world today of pain and addiction and warfare that seem impossible to resolve. A first step is never to try simply to tackle the issue head-on but first fling it into the heart of God.
To have confidence that God is the first one we need to appeal to. And the form of prayer that is powerful is “offering up” our suffering. A friend of mine recently went to hospital for an operation, telling a family member he would offer it up for a particular family situation. He said, he used to think “offering up” was an extra action. But after the operation, he was in agony, and the call-control zapper wasn’t working and he couldn’t get help. He said the offering up was no longer extra but became the activity of his suffering. He found himself being tempted to accuse the nursing staff and others. But he said, suddenly, those thoughts were simply going over his head. He was accepting of the situation as he was living it. His offering up as an act of love to be lived in his pain.
I’ve always been struck by a writing on the Mass by Chiara Lubich, founder of the Focolare. It’s entitled: ‘His Mass and ours’:
“If you suffer and your suffering is such that it prevents any activity, remember the Mass. Jesus in the Mass, today as once before, does not work, does not preach: Jesus sacrifices himself out of love. In life, we can do many things, say many words, but the voice of suffering, maybe unheard or unknown to others, is the most powerful word, the one that pierces heaven. If you suffer, immerse your pain in his: say your Mass; and if the world does not understand, do not worry: all that matters is that you are understood by Jesus, Mary, the Saints. Live with them, and let your blood flow for the good of humanity—like him! The Mass! it is too great to understand! His Mass, our Mass.”
Matt Talbot had such a great love of the Mass. He got up early before work to go to Mass, very unusual for that time. He found his strength to keep going at Mass.
Self-denial. Pioneers remind us that we need to love with the heart of Jesus. Matt Talbot is a great example of self-denial. You express this in total abstinence as a sacrifice of love for the pain caused by excessive consumption of alcohol. In doing this you are imitating the heart of Jesus Christ. It is what we are remembering this Holy Week. Christ was God but he “emptied” himself out of love, to take on our sinful condition and fill us with his gift – divine life. In self-denial and abstinence, we are saying we want, in imitation of Jesus, to take on the sins and fragilities of our neighbours, really saying to those around us, what Pope Francis said recently to a group: “I want to carry your eyes in mind, your heart in mind”. But then, not just taking on their sins and asking for forgiveness, but really trying, like Jesus and in Jesus, to pour out love, divine life, on them, giving them what is deepest in our heart.
And that brings us to the third point. Reparation. We know that Francis of Assisi, understood that God was calling him to reparation and this meant repairing his church. We are called to repair the mystical body of Christ wherever it is damaged. You have taken on this commitment in your pioneer pledge. But how can we do this? Certainly, by your self-denial and prayer. But also by your action, going out, building up relationships that repair and heal those you meet.
The First Reading Today offers us a prophecy of the life of Jesus Christ but it also points to the vocation each of us is called to live in imitation of Jesus: “I, the Lord, have called you to serve the cause of right; I have taken you by the hand and formed you; I have appointed you as covenant of the people and light of the nations, to open the eyes of the blind, to free captives from prison, and those who live in darkness from the dungeon.”
God calls us to go out to each neighbour, seeing Jesus in them, but also helping Jesus in them to be born, to grow, to mature, to die, and to rise again. That’s way of helping others is also part of your pioneer life. There are many ways it’ll happen. Sometimes, it’ll be gestures of love, sometimes it’ll be words of encouragement or correction; sometimes a question planting a seed in people’s heart; sometimes a simple comment that sparks off a search.
One final word. We are in Holy Week, the most solemn week of the Church year. It is the week when we recall our Lord’s suffering, death and resurrection. It’s a week whose message, ultimately, is one of hope. And it’s something Pope Francis often repeats: Don’t let yourself be robbed of hope.