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At the feet of Mercy: Tears, kisses, perfume


In the opening day of the jubilee of Mercy, we, brothers and sisters of the Calabrian family, have the grace to renew our triennial profession, our consecration to the Lord. In order to prepare ourselves more intensely to welcome these graces of the Lord, we chose the biblical text of the encounter between Jesus and the sinful woman, which takes place in the house of Simon. To connect the mercy of God with our consecrated lives, definitely gives us the spiritual insights to live with intensity and joy the triennial renewal of the profession and the jubilee of mercy. Let us invoke the Holy Spirit to guide us to listen the Word and to take up the challenges that are born from the contemplation of the "merciful face of the Father."


Listening the Word (Lk. 7:36-50).


“One of the Pharisees asked Jesus to share his meal. He entered the Pharisee's house and reclined at the table. And behold, a woman, a bad name in the town, knew that he was in the Pharisee's house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment; and he stood behind curled up at his feet weeping and began to wet with tears, and wiped them with her hair, kissed them, and anointed them with the ointment. The Pharisee who had invited Jesus was watching, and thought, ‘If this man were a prophet, he would know who and what sort of person is touching him; is not this woman a sinner?’ Jesus said to him, 'Simon, I have something to tell you’. He said, ‘Speak, Master'. Jesus said, ‘Two people were in debt to the same creditor. One owed him five hundred silver coins, and the other fifty. As they were unable to pay, he forgave them both. Which of them will love him more?’ Simon answered, ‘I suppose the one whom he forgave more.’ Jesus said to him, ‘You are right.’ And turning toward the woman and said to Simon, ‘Do you see this woman? I came into your house and you gave me no water for my feet; but she has wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You did not welcome me with a kiss, but since I came in, she has not ceased to kiss my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with perfume. This is why, I tell you, her many sins are forgiven, because of her great love. But he, who is forgiven little, loves little.’ Then he said to her, ‘Your sins are forgiven.’ Then the guests began to say among themselves, ‘Who is this who even forgives sins?’ But he said to the woman, ‘Your faith has saved you; go in peace!’(Luke 7, 36-50).


Points for meditation

In our reflection, we hope to highlight some aspects of the text, without going into great discussions that the story raises among biblical scholars. We will read the text trying to savor it and ponder it in our hearts, knowing that we are faced with a typical text of the Gospel of Luke, "the singer of God's mercy" (Dante). Jesus appears rich in mercy in every step of the Gospel of Luke, gradually leading to the supreme test of the cross, when He says, "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do"; granting also the forgiveness to the repentant thief (Lk 23.39 to 43). However, in this passage, in particular, we can contemplate "the scandal of gestures," which the mercy arises in the hearts and lives of those who recognize themselves in need of mercy: tears, kisses, perfumes at the feet of Him who is the face of mercy.


“Dramatic and explosive Triangle”: Jesus, the sinful woman and Simon.

A first element of communication that is interesting to note is the composition of a kind of "explosive triangle" formed by the main characters of the scene: Jesus, the sinful woman and Simon the Pharisee. This narrative model is found in other texts of Luke, for example: Jesus, Martha and Mary (Lk 10: 38-42); the Father, the elder son and the youngest (Lk 15:11- 32). Evidently the evangelist Luke explicitly invites us, the readers, to contemplate the attitudes of the characters and to "wear their clothes," trying to figure out how they work in us and in our relationships. In this way, important questions immediately arise, to which we are called to answer: When I do express mercy? When I feel like the ‘sinful woman’? How does the Pharisee Simon work in my heart? To read a story is also allowing the story ‘read’ you.


The sinful woman and her scandalous gestures

The meeting/clash takes place in the house of Simon, during a banquet. While Jesus is at the table, a woman who has no name comes in; she is not invited and is known as ‘a sinner in the town.’ This unexpected character brings a jar of perfume and triggers a high tension in the house of Simon. Now everyone's attention shifts to the woman, because it is strange that she is present in that environment; equally strange is the fact that she tries to avoid being seen by those present, she ‘stands behind, at the feet of Jesus.’[1] To meet Jesus, the woman transgresses the entire rules of social, religious and cultural context. This can be a challenging target for us: to live the encounter with the mercy of God, sometimes we have to "break" with certain rules, which are only cultural or religious excuses to avoid the real encounter with Jesus Christ. Behind such ‘rules or masks’, I hide to avoid an encounter with the divine mercy, which transforms my life?


If the unexpected appearance of the sinful woman arouses so much tension, we can imagine the scandal that result in these gestures that she accomplished: ‘ she began to wet with tears His feet, wiped them with her hair, kissed them, and anointed them with the ointment’. This weeping is a mix of sin and mercy, and is so intense that His feet are wet with tears, and she dries them with her hair. The feet of Jesus receive the full attention of the woman and they are the focus on her actions. From this moment, she will be called no more as the sinful woman but the ‘woman of the perfume.’ This encounter with the mercy causes the radical change in the identity of the woman: from sinful women to fragrant woman. In front of the woman’s gestures emerge the questions: Why she performs these acts? Why all the gestures are concentrated on Jesus' feet? What these gestures mean to me and to my consecrated life? It is important to note that in the Greek text we find 7 times the reference to Jesus' feet and 4 times the reference to the perfume...


Gestures that are born from love and expresses love

Jesus himself offers the key to interpret the gestures of the woman of the perfume through the parable of the creditor, who had two debtors, with different debts (one owed him five hundred silver coins, and the other fifty) and have been forgiven. They both love the creditor who forgave their debt, but the one who had to pay more will love him more, will be more intense and creative in expressing his love. The gesture of the woman originates from her love, from feeling loved by Jesus; gestures are an expression of love and a desire to live a new and unprecedented relationship. The woman's scent is the one who was "five hundred silver coins to his creditor." Encountering Jesus, the merciful creditor, she feels forgiven, released from her many sins and thus expresses her gratitude with a lot of intensity and loving creativity. She does not pronounce a discourse to Jesus using words but using body language (especially with the hands, mouth, hair and tears in his eyes), transmits to Jesus her message of love[2].


Expressing her love, the woman of the perfume makes four actions, which have the feet of Jesus as its center: she washes them with tears, dries them with hair, kisses them and anoints them with perfume. They are actions that involve physical contact, which he welcomes naturally, lovingly. Jesus accepts to be touched because he let himself to be loved, he is not afraid of the gestures and of the fragrant caresses of the woman. Finally, this woman, after meeting so many "other feet", who have trampled, exploited, humiliated, and treated her "like a thing," is at the "feet" of Jesus. The face of the woman of the perfume touches the feet of the one who is the face of the mercy of God the Father. With the body, she tells Jesus what she feels in her heart: ‘I love you and I want to embrace your path and way of walking’. Now we can understand why the actions are concentrated on Jesus’ feet: the feet are a metaphor of the way and walking. With the body, the woman of the perfume tells Jesus: thanks for the way you come into my life, you did not trampled me but lifted me and opened the way of salvation; thank you because you are the "my merciful way," where I can lean with confidence and serenity, my fragile feet, my way of life.


The reaction of the Pharisee Simon, a court in the heart

We cannot forget the third character of the explosive triangle: the Pharisee Simon. The action of the woman unleashes the immediate and irrevocable trial of Simon, a judgment made behind closed doors, a verdict proclaimed in the secret of his heart: "If this man were a prophet, he would know who and what sort of person is touching him; is not this woman a sinner?” A negative judgment disqualifying the woman (already disqualified in v. 37 by the narrator) and especially disqualifies Jesus, the guest of honor. Simon cannot understand and accept the fact that a sinner in front of everyone touches Jesus. Moreover is unacceptable that Jesus does not oppose resistance in front of the gestures of the sinner, he accepts it as if it were the most natural thing in the world. The woman has violated one of the sacred rules for the Pharisee, that is, the radical separation between pure and impure. Jesus is not a prophet, because a true prophet would never tolerate such a scandal. We are now at the highest level of tension: The guest of honor, letting himself to be touched by an unclean woman, has also become impure and this has contaminated the whole house they occupy.


Do you see this woman?

After telling the parable of the two debtors and creditors, which gives us the key to interpret the gestures of the woman, Jesus asks Simon a question: "Do you see this woman”? It seems a question out of place but it is crucial to understand the world in which Simon lives. Indeed, he does not see the woman, he sees only a sinner, an unclean. Simon sees only the physical contact between Jesus and the sinner and the terrible epidemic scheme pure/impure. The Pharisee cannot see the weeping woman, her personal pain, and the tears of repentance. Simon sees the bare facts: the woman touched the body of his host, and he allows it. Jesus tries to help Simon to get out of this trap and the first invitation to the Pharisee is precisely to see the woman. However, he has to look at her in a new way, different from the usual: no longer as an impure woman who transgresses certain rites and rules untouchable, but like a new woman, forgiven and able to establish new relationships. At this time of the narrative the woman takes the central place, becomes the model and reference point. If before we have watched the gestures of the woman according to the "gaze of Simon," now we are invited to contemplate the woman and her gestures with the "eyes of Jesus." The gestures of the woman are taken from Jesus one by one, to show how she have done so much more than what should have done by Simon towards his honoured guest: water for the feet, kiss and perfume on his head. The "eyes of Jesus" sees the gestures of the woman as expressions of love and great faith that saves. The words that Jesus addressed to the woman become prophetic announcement for all those who are in the house, for all of us: "The many sins are forgiven her, for she loved much ... Your faith has saved you; go in peace!”


The Word in my life

The woman of the perfume teaches us how important it is to recognize that we are loved sinners, as the first and decisive movement of healing and salvation, that God the merciful Father gives us in his Son Jesus. The awareness of being loved sinner provokes gestures and attitudes that express repentance, joy of forgiveness and the desire to start a new relationship, new and "contagious like the scent." The gestures of the woman of the perfume come from a heart that feels much loved and deeply touched by mercy. What gestures and attitudes I wish in my Christian life, in my relationship with Jesus Christ?


Preparing the renewal of the triennial profession, I am invited to make a deep evaluation of my consecrated life as Calabrian. Sitting at the feet of Jesus, my Master and Savior, I bring my life of poverty, chastity, obedience and fraternal life. I recognize the unfaithfulness to His love and to the mission that He entrusts to me. At the feet of Jesus, I have to cry for my sins and show my repentance, my need for mercy. Where and to whom do I bring my tears when I feel that I am a sinner? Does my sin make me cry and feel the deep pain in my heart? Is my lifestyle of consecrated Calabrian a manifestation of the Father’s love in the world, in the community and in the mission? Do I pour the perfume of my consecrated life, as Calabrian at the feet of Jesus and his brothers and sisters, or there are "other feet" on which I shed my perfume? How my way of life expresses my identity of Poor Servant of Divine Providence? In this sense, a letter of St. John Calabria helps us to make a thorough evaluation, of our name and our identity.


"I feel appropriate to tell you my poor words (…). They have been thought of and written at the foot of my Crucifix, uniquely for the advantage of your religious souls and of this Opera. As I have told you many times, this Congregation is great in the thought and in the plans of God. Moreover He has many plans for it and has chosen and called us so that we help to fulfill them. How did we respond to them until now? What responsibility if, instead of responding to them we should obstruct them! For God's sake, we live well, let us live well to the demands of our holy vocation, trying to be really those who are called: "Poor Servants of Divine Providence"! Do not let the Lord, in the day of the great reckoning reproach the name we have and do not tell us:


You called yourself “poor”, but where is your spirit of poverty; you have always loved your comforts and made efforts so that nothing could be lacking for you and sometimes weren’t you complaining about any little deprivation?


You called yourself “servant”: but how did you serve me? Why all those opposition to the obedience, those criticisms and murmurs, all those attempts to dominate instead of obeying. Why the lack of dependence, trying to be the master more than the servant is?


You called yourself a man of "Divine Providence": so you had to abandon yourself to it and not look for human supports. God only had to be your support. Why that distrust, that discouragement in the trials, that adjustment more with the reason than with principles of faith? "My dear and beloved brothers, let us seriously think that we have to give account of ourselves not only like Christians but also as religious and even more as members of this Opera born in the Holy Side of blessed Jesus "(LETTER XXIV November 1, 1940).


Conclusion

The Word of God that we have listened begins with a Pharisee that invited Jesus to a meal at his home and ends with a Pharisee who disappears from the scene in silence. The Word of God that we have listened begins with a sinful woman who enters the house of the Pharisee, weeping disconsolately, and ends with a woman forgiven and fragrant, that leaves the scene with a bloomy heart and overflowing with joy and peace. The encounter with the mercy changed the woman's life and she says to us today, "Courage, take your consecrated life at the feet of Jesus, who is the face of the Father's mercy. Let the tears of repentance and the joy of being loved flourish in your eyes, from your heart; do not be afraid to kiss once again the feet of your Master, embrace his way and his way of walking; pour your ointment, everything on Jesus' feet and the feet of those who are the flesh of Jesus, the poor and abandoned. If you have the audacity to live the gestures that I have lived towards the One who "loved me and gave his life for me," you too will feel growing inside you a new consecrated life. Rediscover the beauty of the choice you made, your testimony will awake the world and you will be a living Gospel, prophecy and hope for men and women of your time. I announce this because I believe and am convinced that what the Master of Nazareth has made for me, He wants to make in you, in your consecrated life as Calabrian. Are you willing to accept the revolution of mercy and tenderness in your heart, life and mission?”

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[1] It is strange that this woman was able to enter because in that cultural context men and women were strictly separated. At the table only men should seat, the women used to seat and eat somewhere else. It helps us to understand how much the presence of the sinful woman disturbed and scandalized those present there, especially the host: Simon the Pharisee.

[2] Definitely, we can say that the woman did not find a better way, to express her love than these courageous gestures, full of intimacy. Surely it could only arise indignation, because according to some ancient text, the simple fact of untie the hair in the presence of men was considered such serious obscenity to cause the divorce.

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