Once upon a time, in the late 15th Century, a Japanese shogun called Ashikaga Yoshimasa sent a damaged Chinese tea bowl back to China for repairs. When it was returned he was more than disappointed to see it mended with ugly metal staples. He asked his Japanese craftsmen if they could find a more pleasing and beautiful way of repairing his favourite tea bowl. He was very satisfied with the result, for they had come up with the idea of mixing gold leaf with the glue, so the bowl now had gold seams where the breaks had been.
Over the decades and centuries that followed, this has become a technique called Kintsugi – and now pots are worth a great deal, often more than the original, when they are mended in this way. You will find collections all over the world; indeed, collectors sometimes deliberately smash valuable pottery so it can be repaired with gold seams of kintsugi.
My mind goes to the prophecy of Jeremiah – to the famous passages where the prophet reminds us of his visit to the potter’s house. When he visited, the potter was working at his wheel, and we’re told, ‘the pot he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter’s hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as seemed good to him.’ Jeremiah is reminding the people of God that they are clay in God’s hands, to be shaped and reshaped as God decides. Not as we decide.
For we come to think, don’t we, that our lives are in our hands. We have it in our control, we like to believe, to make our lives as we want. We find it extremely difficult to accept that it’s God’s purpose, God’s way, that shapes us.
And, to be honest, when we do take control of our own lives – how often do we leave things broken, or cracked? We are cracked pots at the best of times – some of us more cracked than others.
A week or so before Jesus had his last supper with his disciples, on the night before he died, at the Passover meal, he spent time with his dear friends at Bethany. You will remember that Lazarus had been raised from the tomb, and there at Bethany we are again, with Martha and Mary, in that household where Jesus was able to relax and unwind, to let go.
With them he’d stop, let go, begin to laugh,
Dissolving stain, the strain: time and again.
Until this time when nothing was enough
To harbour him who bore all grief and sin.
Foreboding, deep as death, tore at their heart:
Relentless image of his body speared:
Juice of life and blood outpoured. His part
He had to play despite the end they feared.
Against the taste of death, a fragrance strong.
Those lovely feet were soothed with tears and oil,
Perfumed and dried, that soon would bear him on.
Her long red hair held scent of him, from coil
To length, through pain of days and time when much
was gone of love, and he beyond her touch.
A sonnet to capture that evening at Bethany, when Mary took costly perfume and anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. Judas Iscariot objects: he believes the perfume should have been sold and the money given to the poor – this is Judas, who was suspected of stealing from the common purse, who sold his friend for thirty pieces of silver. Our sympathies are all with Jesus who responds ‘Leave her alone. She has kept it for my burial. You will always have the poor; you will not always have me.’ Poor Judas, who in the garden of Gethsemane, only a few days later, leads the authorities so that they might arrest Jesus. Poor Judas, who is overwhelmed with shame, and flees to hang himself. A shattered man. A bowl beyond repair – by human hands, at least.
But what of the urn in which the costly perfume, the pure nard, is held? I like to think it would have been a beautiful jar, held by a woman who had sat at Jesus’ feet many a time, listening, absorbing his wisdom and love. She knew, perhaps, how this would end; how her friend would die. She kept this pot of precious perfumed nard for the day of his burial. She is telling him that she knows he will die, and that she is with him.
Today is Passion Sunday, when we turn towards the final days of Lent as we journey with Jesus Christ to his death on the cross. Today, we are with Mary, and Martha and Lazarus, friends of Jesus, sharing his knowledge of what lies ahead. Knowing that our redemption comes as we share in his sufferings. As St Paul says: I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Passion Sunday hears our prayer that a broken and contrite heart, God will not despise. We know that our suffering – whether it be illness, or anxiety, or grief – is taken up by Christ in his Passion, and becomes for us the power of the resurrection.
The power of the resurrection enables all our frailties and brokenness – our flaws and faults, our chips and cracks – to be made better than good as new.
A few days ago a very precious bowl of mine fell from the windowsill and broke. I’ve had it a good long time; given to me by my mother who died too early. We all know that moment. I’m cross with myself for letting it happen. I’m sorry it will never be whole again. It’s broken. Like so much of my life, of the world, of the church. It stirs me again with grief. So – I’m going to try and mend it, using that ancient Japanese technique Kintsugi. Perhaps by Easter Day it will be better than ever; a broken pot made whole. Not only whole, but with the cracks visible and beautiful. And as I mend the pieces, I shall contemplate my own flaws and failings, and ask God to make me whole. Not by disguising all that’s wrong with me, but by using my faults to glorify God.
For often it is our shortcomings, our failings – the ways we irritate others, the annoying habits, our prejudices, all that’s wrong with us – that are the way for us to grow in Christ.
It’s not by denying my sinfulness that I am healed. It doesn’t work, if I try to ignore the way I hurt other people by becoming defensive, or worse, aggressive when I’m criticised. It doesn’t work, to get in there first, and have a go. Much better to hold up a mirror and with gentleness examine the ways I fall short, the ways I fall into sin. For it is only by asking for God’s forgiveness with the knowledge of my brokenness, that I am whole. For it is the gold grace of God that heals me, mends my brokenness. Only by going with Jesus Christ to the cross am I able to share in the gold glory of his Resurrection, and know life in all its abundance, with a peace and gentleness that extends through all the world, as God desires.