The Preacher’s Study
Fifth Sunday of Lent, Year C
John W.B. Hill
Lent has its origins in a pilgrimage to baptism, so this Sunday’s readings are all related to pilgrimage.
In the gospel reading, Jesus and his disciples are on their way up to Jerusalem (together with throngs of other pilgrims) to keep the Passover; but they have stopped for dinner with friends, just outside the city. The disciples are aware that Jerusalem is a dangerous destination (John 11: 8), but they know Jesus is determined to take his campaign there. But there is something they don’t know: that the forces that will crucify Jesus are also converging on Jerusalem (John 11: 57). And there is something they don’t want to know: that the cross is the only way those forces can be neutralized.
We modern disciples, however, who are making our annual Lenten pilgrimage, walking the road to Jerusalem with Jesus, preparing for the Passover of the Lord, are able to see those malignant forces aligning. And we know why this pilgrimage must include the way of the cross.
Or do we?
Passover is the festival of remembrance: remembering the Exodus from Egypt, when the Lord “who makes a way in the sea...who brings out chariot and horse...” brings down “army and warrior; they are extinguished, quenched like a wick”. It’s also a festival of hope: hoping for a New Exodus, because the Lord is “about to do a new thing...” (Isaiah 43: 17, 19). That’s why first century pilgrims would sing the Songs of Ascent as they travelled: “Restore our fortunes, O Lord, like the watercourses in the Negeb...” (Psalm 126: 4). What the disciples were hoping for is that this Passover would be the moment when Jesus’ campaign would make a breakthrough, not just against the Roman oppressors, but also against their collaborators, the wealthy establishment in Jerusalem. Then the Jesus-faction could take over.
However, John’s version of the gospel has reframed the campaign of Jesus. He has used the story of the raising of Lazarus to reveal its ultimate purpose: it is a campaign to disarm death, the instrument of worldly power and control. So anyone who has the power to revoke the threat of death becomes a threat to the powers of this world. Lazarus’ mere presence at the dinner party is a symbol of Jesus’ campaign against the power of death. What the Jerusalem authorities were clearly hoping for is that this Passover would be the moment when they could arrest Jesus and defuse the threat he posed. They were convinced that his death would reaffirm the power of death and ensure their control (John 11: 49-50).
Mary’s gesture with her expensive perfume may appear as an exaggerated expression of hospitality. At formal dinner parties, when guests reclined at table, and feet which had walked through the filthy streets were not hidden under the table, a slave would wash their feet; only, this household had no slave to do it.
Yet it is Jesus alone that Mary attends to, and she takes it up a notch by anointing instead of washing — and not his head or his body, but his feet. What could she have meant by this?
Any act of anointing (of the head or the body) acknowledges and affirms something about the person being anointed. Anointing for healing acknowledges a person’s suffering and affirms God’s healing grace and compassion. Feet, in Hebrew culture, were the body’s means of taking action, of proceeding with intent; thus, in anointing Jesus’ feet, Mary open-heartedly acknowledges and affirms Jesus’ campaign (even though she could hardly have imagined where his feet would take him in the end). Judas, by contrast (and presumably the other disciples as well), has serious doubts about Jesus’ campaign, and cannot imagine why it should be affirmed in such a categorical way. So Jesus gives him a hint: “She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial.”
But if disarming death is the goal of Jesus’ campaign, how could his death accomplish that?
For centuries our path of discipleship has been diverted into a dead-end: we chose to trust a legal theory of atonement instead of trusting Jesus enough to follow him on the way of the cross. It is only by staying inside the Passion story that we will ever discover God’s answer to the question. And that is what we shall be doing together over the next couple of weeks. We shall follow Jesus into that dark and frightening place, just as the first disciples had to do. Their failure can inform ours, and then we can begin to recognize God’s surprising way of healing a world of fear, violence, and ecological destruction.
That is what St Paul learned to do. “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death...forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press towards the goal...” (Philippians 3: 10, 13-14). This is the true nature of our pilgrimage.
John Hill is a presbyter in the Anglican Church of Canada (ACC). A member of APLM Council, John served as chair for the Primate’s Task Force on Hospitality, Christian Initiation and Discipleship Formation in the ACC. The work of this group led to the development of ‘Becoming the Story We Tell.’
John Reilly, “The raising of Lazarus”
Nik Helbig, “I Cried For You”