Sunday, 7 April 2019

Looking forward in
Lent to the joys and
hopes of the Easter life

‘There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him’ … dinner in Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Sunday 7 April (Lent 5):

11.30 a.m., Morning Prayer, Saint Brendan’s Church, Kilnaughtin (Tarbert).

Readings: Isaiah 43: 16-21; Psalm 126; Philippians 3: 4b-14; John 12: 1-8.

‘… forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on towards the goal for the prize’ (Philippians 3: 13-14) … Greek athletes in a frieze (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

May I speak to you in the name of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

We are coming close to the end of Lent. At one time, this Sunday was known as Passion Sunday. Next Sunday [14 April 2019], the Sixth Sunday in Lent, is Palm Sunday, and so our readings this morning prepare us to move closer to Palm Sunday and the Passion stories of Holy Week.

In our epistle reading (Philippians 3: 4b-14), Saint Paul is writing to the church in Philippi, a church in Macedonia, near Thessaloniki. In this letter, he tells his readers how he wants to know Christ in his suffering and in his resurrection. He is making progress not on his own, but through God’s grace. He has left his past behind him, and eagerly seeks what lies ahead. Like the winner in a race of Greek athletes was called up to receive his prize, Saint Paul now seeks God’s call to share in the life of the Resurrection.

The timing for our Gospel reading (John 12: 1-8) is the day before Palm Sunday, and the setting is in Bethany, on the Mount of Olives, 3 km east of Jerusalem. It was there, in the previous chapter, Christ raised Lazarus, the brother of Martha and Mary, from the dead (see John 11: 1-44).

The name Lazarus is a form of the name Eleazar. As the freed slaves moved through the wilderness in the Exodus story, the priest Eleazar was responsible for carrying the oil for the Temple menorah or lampstand, the sweet incense, the daily grain offering and the anointing oil (see Numbers 4: 16).

So, as Saint John’s Gospel carefully sets the location and the timing of this story, we can expect a story this morning with a connection to death and resurrection, and with some association with anointing.

The plotting against Jesus has intensified. Meanwhile, many people are making the pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the feast of the Passover. The religious authorities, aware that Jesus is ‘performing many signs’ (11: 47), now want to arrest him.

Jesus now returns to Bethany, where the family of Lazarus invite him to dinner. In this account, Martha serves the meal, and Lazarus is at the table with them. In Saint Luke’s account, Martha serves while Mary sits at the feet of Jesus (see Luke 10: 38-42).

After dinner, Mary takes ‘a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard’ to anoint the feet of Jesus. Nard came from the roots of the spike or nard plant grown in the Himalayas. If the guests were reclining on couches, Jesus’ feet would be accessible for anointing, but a respectable Jewish woman would hardly appear in public with her hair unbound.

The reaction of Judas points forward to the impending arrest of Jesus (see John 18:1-11). The cost of this nard, 300 denarii, was almost a year’s wages for a labourer. I wonder whether there is a link between 300 denarii and the 30 pieces of silver Judas receives in Saint Matthew’s Gospel (see Matthew 26: 15)?

Anointing was the last step before burial, but it was not for executed criminals.

Has Mary bought the perfume to have it ready for Christ’s burial?

Does she realise that using it now is not a waste of the perfume?

Martha and Mary have offered their home in Bethany as a place of welcome, peace and refuge for Jesus. His life is under threat, but still he has time, and they have time, for a meal together.

They had a hint of the Easter story already in this home when Jesus raised their brother Lazarus from the dead. Now we have a sign of Jesus’ impending death, when Mary anoints his feet with costly perfume.

But Judas fails to see the full picture, to understand the full scenario that is beginning to unfold. Judas has a point, I suppose, from our point of view. There is so much need in the world, so much need around us, there is so much that is demanding the best of our intentions.

But, so often, the best of my intentions remains just that, and I never do anything about them. How often do we hear people say, ‘Charity begins at home,’ as a way of putting down people who genuinely want to do something about the injustices around us, even the injustices in the wider world?

Yet, so often, we suspect, that in their case charity does not even begin at home … it never even gets to the starting blocks.

For Mary, in this morning’s Gospel reading, charity begins in her own home. But we get a hint that it is not going to end there. It has only started.

Judas is told the poor are always going to be with him … perhaps because charity does not even begin in his own home, never mind reaching out beyond that.

Mary’s action is loving and uninhibited, Mary’s gift is costly and beyond measure.

Love like that begins at home, and it goes on giving beyond the home, beyond horizons we never imagine.

Later that week, the disciples must have been reminded of Mary’s actions when Jesus insisted on washing their feet in a similar act of love and humility, once again at dinner.

How would I feel if Jesus knelt in front of me and washed my feet?

Would I worry whether I have smelly socks, whether he notices my bunions, chilblains and in-grown toenails? Would I be so self-obsessed and concerned about what he thinks of me that I would never stop to think of what I think of him and what he thinks of others?

Or would I, like Mary, smell the sweet fragrance that fills a house that is filled with love?

Someone recently described prayer as ‘a time of living in the fragrance and the scent of God. It is gentle, light and lasts long. It comes off us; if we live in love, we spread love, and others know that something deep in us gives a fragrance to all of our life.’

Mary of Bethany is extravagant and generous and is not inhibited by the attitude of others around her. How much did she understand about Jesus’ impending death when none of the disciples saw it coming?

Mary does not sell the perfume, as Judas wants her to. Instead, she keeps it and she brings it to the grave early on Easter morning with the intention of anointing the body of the dead Jesus.

Can people smell the fragrance of Christ from us?

Are we prepared to let charity begin at home, but not end there?

And then, in the joy of the Easter Resurrection, are we ready to allow that generous charity, that generous love, to be shared with the whole world?

Like Saint Paul, who has left his past behind him and eagerly seeks what lies ahead, like the winner waiting to be called up to receive his prize, we can answer God’s call to share in the life of the Resurrection.

And so, may all we think, say, and do be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

‘There they gave a dinner for him’ (John 12: 2) … a table ready for dinner in the evening sunset by the sea at Platanias, near Rethymnon in Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

John 12: 1-8 (NRSVA):

1 Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 2 There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. 3 Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. 4 But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, 5 ‘Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?’ 6 (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) 7 Jesus said, ‘Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. 8 You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.’

‘There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him’ … at dinner in Corfu (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Liturgical Colour: Violet

Penitential Kyries:

Lord God,
you sent your Son to reconcile us to yourself and to one another.
Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

Lord Jesus,
you heal the wounds of sin and division.
Christ, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.

Holy Spirit,
through you we put to death the sins of the body – and live.
Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

The Collect:

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.

The Lenten Collect:

Almighty and everlasting God,
you hate nothing that you have made
and forgive the sins of all those who are penitent:
Create and make in us new and contrite hearts
that we, worthily lamenting our sins
and acknowledging our wretchedness,
may receive from you, the God of all mercy,
perfect remission and forgiveness;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Introduction to the Peace:

Now in union with Christ Jesus you who were once far off have been brought near through the shedding of Christ’s blood; for he is our peace. (Ephesians 2: 17)

Blessing:

Christ draw you to himself
and grant that you find in his cross a sure ground for faith,
a firm support for hope,
and the assurance of sins forgiven:

Saint Paul is writing to the church in Philippi, then a major town in Macedonia in northern Greece (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Hymns:

517, Brother, sister, let me serve you (CD 30)
218, And can it be that I should gain (CD 14)
587, Just as I am, without one plea (CD 33)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

The Risen Christ with Mary of Bethany (left) and Mary Magdalene (right) … a stained glass window in Saint Nicholas’s Church, Adare, Co Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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