I’ve been rediscovering the songs of Sydney Carter and printing some of the lyrics in this blog. He often re-interprets incidents from the Bible, as here:
1 Said Judas to Mary, “Now what will you do
with your ointment so rich and so rare?”
“I’ll pour it all over the feet of the Lord
and I’ll wipe it away with my hair,” she said,
“wipe it away with my hair.”
2 “Oh Mary, Oh Mary, oh think of the poor —
this ointment, it could have been sold,
and think of the blankets and think of the bread
you could buy with the silver and gold,” he said,
“buy with the silver and gold.”
3 “Tomorrow, tomorrow I’ll think of the poor
Tomorrow,” she said, “not today;
for dearer than all of the poor in the world
is my love who is going away,” she said,
“my love who is going away.”
4 Said Jesus to Mary, “Your love is so deep
today you may do as you will.
Tomorrow you say I am going away,
but my body I leave with you still,” he said,
“my body I leave with you still.”
5 “The poor of the world are my body,’ he said,
“to the end of the world they shall be,
the bread and the justice you give to the poor
you will find you have given to me,” he said,
“you’ll find you have given to me.”
6 “My body will hang on the cross of the world
tomorrow,” he said, “not today,
and Martha and Mary will find me again
and wash all the sorrow away,” he said,
“wash all the sorrow away.”
It’s worth noting that in fact Carter is dealing with three bible stories here: the story of a sinful woman in Luke 7; the story of the anointing of Jesus by a woman at Bethany in Matthew 26; and the story of the last judgement in Matthew 25; weaving one new story from the three. This creativity with the Bible continues the habit of the four gospellers in weaving sometimes very different new stories from their common tradition. A story about Jesus is never a true story till you have made it your own.
The use of the folk ballad format of a dialogue allows for brief and vivid characterisation: the penny pinching Judas, envious of the relationship of Mary and Jesus, is rendered irrelevant first of all by Mary and then by Jesus. The human richness of love outweighs all calculation, especially when it is dealing with the grief of separation, so that the poured out ointment is also linked to the anointing of Jesus corpse. These powerful elements are all aready present in the two bible stories about anointing.
It is Carter’s genius to use the parable of the last judgement, where the King reveals that those who have done something for the needy and the outcast have done it for him. Carter links this truth to the image of Christ’s body: the body he leaves to his disciples’ care is the poor, in whom he hangs on the cross of the world. There they can find him and wash his sorrow away.
All this goes beyond orthodoxy. In the bible Christ’s body is identified with the church, which of course Carter knew. He was suggesting that the church’s identity with the body of Christ is only true when it identifies with the poor. The pathos of insisting that Jesus hangs on the cross of the world, is also not orthodox, suggesting that his crucifixion continues, and that the world, as in John’s gospel, is utterly opposed to the way of God.
The whole episode however is created with such a light touch, that the ordinary sinful disciple is helped to rediscover her own love for Jesus and to enter the mystery of his crucifixion while remaining committed to the poor of our world. If this is heresy, let’s have more of it!