The Monday of Holy Week

Crosses made yesterday at the children's Zoom Explore session

Crosses made yesterday at the children's Zoom Explore session

This Holy Week my daily blog will be based upon the appointed reading from the Gospels for each day, and Simon is providing a piece of organ music that you might like to play at the end of the reading, to allow a few moments of reflection.  Today the reading is John 12: 1-11.  What follows, except the last paragraph and the poem, is a piece I wrote a few years ago for my Lent book “Lent with Saint John’s Gospel”:


St John’s Gospel, chapter 12, verse 3: ‘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.’ 


On one occasion when I was with a group on pilgrimage to the Holy Land, on visiting a church in Cana, where Jesus turned the water into wine, there was to be a special celebration later that day. I can’t remember exactly what it was; I think that the relics of a saint were being brought to the church, but I am not sure. anyhow, the point that I want to make is this: that the celebration was being marked by the whole sanctuary of the Church being filled – and I mean literally filled with flowers. not the usual two vases placed on pedestals or shelves either side of the altar, but pots and troughs, stands and great and small containers of cut blooms. a brown-habited friar snipped and adjusted, moving with devotional care; quietly and in an absorbed manner he lovingly tended and arranged. 


Perfume and flowers are such intrinsically important gifts, redolent of loving attention to the object of our desire, that they can become almost shockingly revealing of our state of emotional engagement. perhaps I put this too strongly. For some a silk imitation or, worse still, a dusty plastic attempt at colour is no different to rapidly fading natural blossom, but to gather the correct impression of Mary of Bethany it is essential to appreciate that something wonderful; an act of pure devotion is occurring here. 


That this incident shocked and was remembered is hardly surprising: a woman anointing the feet of Jesus, and wiping them with her hair, is a scene filled with a mysterious connotation of inner understanding between two people that places the observer just as that – an observer. We are inclined to rationalise the moments when we see the surface action, but cannot fully discern the hidden effect. The Samaritan woman at the well tried this ploy, to absorb what Jesus was trying to show her. Judas attempts to bring this incident, at the beginning of John chapter 12, to some acceptable level of normality by complaining about the waste of ointment. but all this misses the point, doesn’t it? The point is that in Mary we have the devoted soul expressing her love for Jesus, and her joy too, in his presence, in a way that others could only gape at. 


I think of that young friar at Cana, soft-footed, handling the delicate petals, leaves and stems with just the devoted tenderness with which Mary used her hair, to spread the ointment and remove its excess from the feet of Jesus. for days she would have carried that scent with her, as in sorrow the days were coming when she would carry the Crucifixion of our Lord within her; both expressions of love; both holding the imprint of the divine life on the human soul. 


As we hear of more people dying with the coronavirus in this country and across the world, what comes with our anguish for others is the lack of physical touch, and the barriers that have to be in place to keep others safe.  I have spoken to a number of people on this distress in the past few days, and I know that those who find themselves physically separated in this way are in our most heart-felt prayers daily. And, of course, the hands that are there to help are those of NHS staff across the country.

I expect many of you have read Michael Rosen’s poem written for the 60th anniversary of the NHS a decade ago.  Its words are very moving:


These are the hands


These are the hands

That touch us first

Feel your head

Find the pulse

And make your bed.



These are the hands

That tap your back

Test the skin

Hold your arm

Wheel the bin

Change the bulb

Fix the drip

Pour the jug

Replace your hip.


These are the hands

That fill the bath

Mop the floor

Flick the switch

Soothe the sore

Burn the swabs

Give us a jab

Throw out sharps

Design the lab.


And these are the hands

That stop the leaks

Empty the pan

Wipe the pipes

Carry the can

Clamp the veins

Make the cast

Log the dose

And touch us last.



The organ piece that Simon has recorded for us for our reflection today may be found by following this link:


John Mann