The Revd Antonio Garcia Fuerte
About a month ago now, I was choosing an image important for me to go on my ordination ember cards. The runner up was one of Leonardo da Vinci’s great paintings, “The Last Supper”, in the refectory of the convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan.
You might remember the painting: a long table covered in a shiny white table cloth, the figure of Jesus in the centre, big, majestic, and his twelve disciples around him. The painting is a masterpiece of psychological depiction. It portrays the precise moment when Jesus tells his disciples that one of them will betray him. Each one of the twelve apostles has a different facial expression that reflects their individual feelings to the announcement: fear, indignation, surprise, astonishment… It is not only a masterpiece of painting but also of profound spiritual insight.
There is a story I heard from the tour guide when I first went to see the painting. The story goes like this. When Leonardo had finished the painting, he wanted to hear the impression that people had about it. So he stood in the background trying not to be seen by the visitors. When the first visitors arrived, they praised with admiration the detail of the tablecloth: the folds, the perfection of the pleats, the detail of the textile… Leonardo stood and listened mortified. When they left, he took his brush and applied a thin layer of plain paint over the table cloth, so that it would no longer distract the eyes of the viewers from the central figure of Jesus and the message in the scene depicted.
Most often, in the Gospel that we have heard today, Martha is seen to represent most of us in our daily lives, compulsively active, running from one thing to another with no stop or pause. Mary is the one who stops, takes a sit at the feet of the Lord to take some time to listen and received the praise of the Lord for doing so. Yet, it seems to me that this interpretation is like appreciating the beautiful white tablecloth in Leonardo’s painting and missing completely the psychological depiction of what is really happening here.
Where is the centre figure in our Gospel story? In my view the centre figure of the story is the absolute outrageous transgression that is the relationship between Jesus, a man, a teacher, a reputed Rabbi, and these two women.
Jesus had instructed his disciples (as we see him here practising himself) that, when they travelled to spread the Gospel, they should stay in the house of those who would the Gospel and accept their hospitality. Where are all those men that Jesus has healed all those past three years? Where are the pharisees that acclaim as a “rabbi” or teacher? It is these women (Luke doesn’t mention Lazarus here) who will welcome Jesus in this journey towards Jerusalem to fulfill his mission, enabling him. Later, in his passion, they will “all” abandon him, but for the women. And after the resurrection, it is the women who discover that Jesus has risen, the first witness.
The women are part of those “excluded” in the middle eastern cultures of the 1st century CE. Not figuratively, but really. They are passive members of the community, taken into account only as being part of their husband’s or parent’s. And in the Gospel the women, the excluded, become key to the success of the mission of Jesus.
The way Mary sits at the feet of the Lord shows an intimacy that, to the societies of the first century, would have raised some eyebrows. This was the place of the wife or the children, but not of an stranger, nor of a friend. It shows intimacy, closeness, broken barriers and broken social order.
And surprising is also the way in which Martha addresses the Lord, with a certain manner of disrespect we would say, confronting him. There is an imbalance in their relationship: Jesus is a teacher, a Rabbi, and she is… well, a woman! She couldn’t be a teacher, a Rabbi, or anything else of importance. And after all, if she wants her sister’s help she should confront her not Jesus! And Jesus, far from being angry at her audacity, far from challenging the outrageous social transgression that the behaviour of Martha represents, he welcomes what Martha had to say, he accepts the breach of the established order, he listens, he takes it on board, and then he explains what is best.
This teaches us of the type of relationships that Jesus built with those around him, about the absolute nearness, the radical equality around him, the welcome of all, value everything that others have to say, his unconditional love for each one of them, for each one of us.
These values are still as transgressive and radical today as they were back in the first century. Still in our society, women are paid less than men for doing the same jobs. Do us men, take women’s concerns onboard, as Jesus did, and prepare to stand up for them, prophetically? This is the mission to which Jesus calls us today. And not only of women, but all those excluded, all those who don’t have a voice. We are called to be prophets in whichever context we may find ourselves, and transform the world around us.
As a Church, this community gathered here this morning, we exercise our prophetic voice as well. One of the ways we do this is though our School, St James’ and St John’s. Ours is not a school that handpicks their students for their intellectual abilities. And this is already groundbreaking and transgressive. We have understood the vocation of our Christian school to do what Jesus did in the Gospel we have heard today, this is: to welcome all, unconditionally. To support and encourage every child, regardless. To discover and stir up each gift that God has given each child, and though which God blesses them and us. Like Jesus did in the Gospel today, no child is excluded for any reason, they all have a voice and they all are equally important.
Today we give Valerie our farewell. Valerie has played a vital role in moving St James’ and St John’s forwards; transforming it from a fairly unknown school, into the thriving community which it is today. And not only that, but also by putting all these sometimes groundbreaking Christian values at the core of the school community.
Headteacher is not an easy role. It requires to bring together the vision and aspirations of our school governors, the hard work and great skills of our teachers and staff, the support and enthusiasm of the parents and, most of all, the gifts in every child. That is why we are so grateful as a community for taking on this so important role within our ministry as a Parish. And with you, we are thankful too to those who, on behalf of the Parish, have worked alongside you as governors, Susan Fisher, Jean, Gaynor, Lin… Thank you too, for without you our mission at St James's and St John's would not be the success story that it is today.
In my experience of helping in the school for just one year, I could sum up how I have perceived your leadership style in a quote from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry: “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men together to collect wood, divide their work and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.”