“The Recompense” by John Banister Tabb

Wesley, Frank_Mary at the Tomb
Frank Wesley (Indian, 1923–2002), Mary at the Tomb, before 1993. Watercolor, 25 × 20 cm. Published in “Frank Wesley: Exploring Faith with a Brush” (Auckland: Pace, 1993).

She brake the box, and all the house was filled
With waftures from the fragrant store thereof,
While at His feet a costlier rose distilled
The bruisèd balm of penitential love.

And lo, as if in recompense of her,
Bewildered in the lingering shades of night,
He breaks anon the sealèd sepulcher,
And fills the world with rapture and with light.

“The Recompense” by John Banister Tabb was originally published in Poems by John Banister Tabb (Boston: Copeland and Day, 1894) and is now in the public domain.

This short poem—just two quatrains with an ABAB CDCD rhyme scheme—draws on Luke 7:36–50. In this Gospel episode, Jesus is dining at the house of Simon the Pharisee when an unnamed “sinful” woman enters with an alabaster jar of precious ointment, which she pours lavishly onto Jesus’s feet in an act of love and gratitude, and in recognition of his messiahship. So humbled is she by Jesus’s forgiveness of her sin that she is in tears. (Note: Tradition says this woman was Mary Magdalene—based in part on a conflation with the similar account in John 12:1–8, which names the woman Mary.)

Of even more value to Christ than the essential oils, Tabb suggests, is the woman’s “penitential love,” a balm before his wounds. Her beautiful, bruised soul, like a rose, releases such an aroma, though the Pharisees can’t smell it, and they try to shame her. Not long hence Jesus returns her tenderhearted gesture, opening another stone container (his tomb) and spilling forth life and light and bliss, priceless treasures, onto his beloved world. He meets Mary in her bewilderment on that first Easter morning, lavishing on her all his resurrection riches.

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