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Readings: 5th Sunday of Lent

08 March 2013


5th Sunday of Lent
Passiontide begins

Isaiah 43.16-21; Philippians 3.4b-14; John 12.1-8

Most merciful God, who by the death and resurrection of your Son Jesus Christ delivered and saved the world: grant that by faith in him who suffered on the cross we may triumph in the power of his victory; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

THE brother and sisters, Lazarus, Martha, and Mary, radiated hospitality. They offered their home and their hearts to Jesus, and included his numerous friends. John records that Jesus loved them. Theirs was a home where Jesus felt comfortable: he could put his feet up and relax. When facing danger or demanding situations, we need somewhere safe among friends, and it is telling that Jesus chose to stay with them during the gruelling last week of his life.

In the Gospel vignette, Jesus was their guest of honour at a thank-you dinner, after he had turned their family life around by raising Lazarus from the dead. In the relaxed atmosphere, Mary suddenly jolted everyone to attention. Her action was like breaking a very large bottle of Chanel No 5 in a small space: the fragrance would be overpowering. It was immensely valuable, about a year's wages for the average person. If, as is possible, it was part of her dowry, she was offering Jesus her love and her life's commitment in sheer grateful extravagance.

Shockingly, she anointed his feet. Anointing his head would have symbolically anointed him as prophet, priest, or king, but, by anointing his feet, she likened him to a corpse, since the anointing of a dead body began with the feet.

John makes the link linguistically by using the same word, "pound", when describing the burial spices that Nicodemus gave after Jesus's death. Her action carried a disturbing mixed message, which Jesus understood, of lavish gratitude and impending death.

This was an incredibly tender and intimate moment in a family home. A respectable woman let down her hair only in front of her husband or when mourning. Mary's willingness to be vulnerable to Jesus broke the barriers of convention in the way that unmarried men and women related to each other, and freed Jesus to be vulnerable in return. He had seen her hair at Lazarus's tomb; now he saw it again, foreshadowing his own death, in the midst of a celebration of Lazarus's restored life.

Sometimes, we have to hold in tension the paradox that life and death are not mutually exclusive: the funeral liturgy reminds us that "in the midst of life we are in death". This is true every Sunday, when congregations reconstitute themselves as assemblies of people experiencing life and death: one person's celebration of an engagement or the birth of a grandchild is part of the same offering as another person's bereavement or redundancy.

The Church invites us to bring the textured fabric of our lives to God, without denying any part of them, to make one offering. Thus, over the centuries, Durham Cathedral has contained more joy and more sorrow, more fear and more hope, than most other buildings. It is a prayed-in place, a safe place that keeps itself as a place of hospitality for all, without charge, aiming to welcome people as if Christ. The same can be true, however small the village or inner-city church.

This integrity of joy and sorrow, hope and doubt, is also built into the fabric of the liturgical year. When my father died one Lent, I wondered whether I would feel any Easter joy. When Easter came, I experienced the paradox that, as I brought my sadness to the Church's celebration of Christ's resurrection, it was given back to me as a new, deeper joy: joy in a minor key, but a strange and poignant joy none the less.

That is the wonder of Christian worship: it holds together the grief and the glory, the tears and the triumph, in one offering to God, and makes of it something beyond our imagining.

Just as Mary shifted the focus, so, on Passion Sunday, our gaze is refocused as the liturgy turns us from the disciplined observance of Lent to become conscious of the growing overshadowing of Calvary. The cross comes more sharply into view. We turn to face it for ourselves, but we also turn as a community that will tread the pilgrimage of the next two weeks together, bringing our joy and sorrow, our hopes and fears, to make one offering to God.

"In the midst of life we are in death." Yes, but: "Praise to you, Lord Jesus: dying you destroyed our death, rising you restored our life: Lord Jesus, come in glory."

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