5th Sunday of Lent
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
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
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."