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The Gospel of John (John 12 1-8) tells us of how Mary of Bethany anointed Jesus. I love this intense and beautiful moment in the Gospels, The God of the Cosmos enters as a vulnerable man into all the particular fragility of our human friendships and intimacy. I love the way Jesus responds to Mary’s beautiful, useless gesture and recognises it as something that is always worthwhile, something that will live forever, for all the carping and criticism of Judas, then and now.

I feel a special poignancy in this gospel moment amidst the isolation of our present crisis, because it celebrates the touch and intimacy which so many of us are having to go without. My poem opens with the injunction ‘come close’ and yet the mantra of our time is ‘keep apart’. All the more then, as we are social distancing, must we seek intimacy with God, the intimacy he offers us in Christ.

This sonnet, and the others I will be posting for Holy Week are all drawn from my collection Sounding the Seasons.

You can hear me read the poem by clicking on the title:

The Anointing at Bethany

Come close with Mary, Martha , Lazarus
So close the candles stir with their soft breath
And kindle heart and soul to flame within us
Lit by these mysteries of life and death.
For beauty now begins the final movement
In quietness and intimate encounter
The alabaster jar of precious ointment
Is broken open for the world’s true lover,

The whole room richly fills to feast the senses
With all the yearning such a fragrance brings,
The heart is mourning but the spirit dances,
Here at the very centre of all things,
Here at the meeting place of love and loss
We all foresee, and see beyond the cross.

Republished with gracious permission from Malcolm Guite’s website.

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The featured image is “Anointing of Christ in Bethany” (1530s) by Polidoro da Lanciano, and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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