AS PASSIONTIDE begins, we hear the Lord address his people in this way: “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?”
In the first instance, the “new thing” that is being promised is deliverance from Babylon. But Isaiah also prophesies a restoration of the harmony of all creation (v.20) — something that exceeds this single, historical event. As St Cyril of Alexandria observes, this looks forward to the reconciliation that is wrought by the sacrificial death of Christ.
Our Gospel reading contains a second prophecy of the Passion. Mary has already grasped that Jesus’s sacrificial death is an essential part of his work. Her anointing is a prophetic act that is costly and courageous, both in financial terms and in the criticism taht it attracts. And yet it is an act that she feels compelled to undertake, to prepare Jesus for his coming crucifixion.
As Jean Vanier observes, Mary’s act of adoration is “an excessive, extravagant gesture, an act of love, similar to the excessive amount of water turned into wine at Cana”. God’s love for us is not limited by rational calculation. The miracle at Cana prefigures the foolishness and scandal of Christ’s self-offering on the cross. It is, therefore, fitting that Mary’s act of preparation is likewise “beautiful, foolish and scandalous” (Drawn into the Mystery of Jesus through the Gospel of John).
Such extravagance is condemned by Judas, ostensibly out of a concern that the money spent on ointment could have been given to the poor. Jesus tells Judas to “leave her alone”, no doubt in part because he knows that the objection is made in bad faith, but also because it misses the point. Something is about to happen that will truly be “good news for the poor”.
In the paschal mystery, Christ stands among those robbed of all worldly power and status, showing this to be the very heart of his Kingdom. This transformation of values has far greater implications for the social and material status of the poorest. It demands that they are treated not simply as objects of charitable giving, but as bearers of the divine image. While all human beings bear God’s image, in the light of the cross we can rightly speak of a particular resemblance between the poorest and their Lord.
In our epistle, Paul refers to another aspect of this transformation of values, writing that “whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ.” Since he now understands that true power and value flow from the cross, Paul yearns to become “like Christ in his death if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead”.
As Fleming Rutledge observes, “Paul wants to emphasize the skandalon of the crucifixion. This was not a popular topic in Paul’s time, and it is not a popular topic today. . . It sometimes seems as though the church has willfully decided to ignore the radical content of such passages, concentrating instead on a more generic, less offensive interpretation of Jesus’ death.” And yet for Paul, the humiliation of the cross is an essential part of the Gospel — not something to be glossed over in an “upbeat and triumphalist” message that reinforces the political and economic powers’ status quo (The Crucifixion: Understanding the death of Jesus Christ).
A harrowing illustration of this point is to be found in The Cross and the Lynching Tree, James Cone’s study of racial violence in the American South. As he shows, a failure to connect the cross with “social reality” allowed people who confessed Jesus as Lord to violate and murder their fellow Christians. In contrast, African American Christians found strength to endure and resist without turning to the ways of violence and hatred, precisely because they interpreted their lives through the lens of Christ’s Passion.
Our observance of Passiontide must help us to recognise the “new thing” that Christ has wrought on the cross, and let it transform every aspect of our existence. With Mary, we must contemplate Christ’s self-offering on the cross, allowing ourselves to be drawn into what may seem a “foolish” and even “scandalous” outpouring of adoration. And, with Paul, the scandal of the cross must transform our values and judgements, so that we, too, die to this world’s hierarchies of status and success.