Dying to live

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I am still reeling at the destruction of Notre Dame through the fire yesterday. That cathedral was a symbol of God’s presence in France, and its burning reverberates powerfully with me. The burned church evokes images of Christ’s death on the cross. Like the cathedral, Christ is damaged and destroyed. Its devastation leaves an empty shell. We are shocked, dismayed. How is this possible?

But in John 12:20-36, Jesus talks about his own death, not as something to be avoided, and not even as something inevitable, but as something necessary, intended, perhaps even desirable. He uses the analogy of a seed, that must die in order to produce more seeds.

And he also says that we who follow him, must similarly die; that if we love this life on earth too much, we’re in trouble; that we need to hold on to it just lightly. Instead, if we follow him, through death, we will be with him in glory.

He raises the question of what we have to die to today. Of what in our lives needs to burn to the ground, so that something new can spring forth.

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Feature image: Interior of Notre Dame following the fire on 15 April 2019, CNN.

God’s Will

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One of the key themes of Easter is that God’s Will will not be thwarted. No matter what we raise against God’s Will – God’s Intentions – God will accomplish God’s Will. This comes into relief in today’s reading from John 11:45-57. It is a passage about the Jewish leaders’ sense of threat from the success of Jesus’ ministry, and their decision to eliminate him. Their concerns and actions are motivated by self-preservation, and they believe that eliminating Jesus will secure their future salvation.

Ironically, they could not be more correct, but not in the way they thought. Jesus’ death (the death of one person) did indeed make possible the salvation of the entire world – not just the Jewish nation, but indeed all people, everywhere, at all times, including both past and future.

God took their evil intent and incorporated it into God’s Will, to accomplish the great plan that God had already conceptualised at the dawn of time: to save the cosmos. God’s Will is glacial, moving inexorably towards its destination.

The Will of God will not be thwarted. We see this tenacity of God’s Will strikingly in Ezekiel 37:21-28, where God’s “will” is articulated 24 times in just 8 verses:

‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: I will take the Israelites out of the nations where they have gone. I will gather them from all around and bring them back into their own land. 22 I will make them one nation in the land, on the mountains of Israel. There will be one king over all of them and they will never again be two nations or be divided into two kingdoms. 23 They will no longer defile themselves with their idols and vile images or with any of their offenses, for I will save them from all their sinful backsliding, and I will cleanse them. They will be my people, and I will be their God.

24 “‘My servant David will be king over them, and they will all have one shepherd. They will follow my laws and be careful to keep my decrees.25 They will live in the land I gave to my servant Jacob, the land where your ancestors lived. They and their children and their children’s children will live there forever, and David my servant will be their prince forever.26 I will make a covenant of peace with them; it will be an everlasting covenant. I will establish them and increase their numbers, and I will put my sanctuary among them forever. 27 My dwelling place will be with them; I will be their God, and they will be my people. 28 Then the nations will know that I the Lord make Israel holy, when my sanctuary is among them forever.’”

If God is able to accomplish so much when people are working against God, imagine what God can accomplish when people work with God! Today we are reminded of the remarkable opportunity to partner with God in implementing God’s Will, and in so doing, to be part of history-making.

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Featured image of one of the glaciers in College Fjord in Alaska.

Death and devotion

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We draw closer and closer to the cross on this Lenten journey. Next Sunday is Palm Sunday, and then it is Holy Week, leading to Good Friday when we sit at the foot of the cross and watch Jesus die, and then we wait despairingly yet expectantly through Silent Saturday, until Easter morning when our Lord rises from the dead. Morbid though this may sound, this is indeed a time of death and devotion.

Mary, the sister of Lazarus, pours very expensive perfume (Nard) on Jesus’ feet and wipes them with her hair (John 12:1-8). A parallel story is found in Mark 14:1-9. This narrative raises multiple messages, but two have resonated strongly with me this weekend: death and devotion.

Death

This story is soaked with death. The previous chapter (John 11) told us of Lazarus’ death, how he was laid in a tomb for four days, and how Jesus then raised him from the dead. This same Lazarus now sits around the table with Jesus, eating a meal! Mary’s use of Nard to anoint Jesus’ feet suggests burial preparation, as if Jesus has already died and is being embalmed. In the next passage, Jesus makes his triumphal donkey entry into Jerusalem, signalling the start of Holy Week – Jesus’ final walk to the cross. He talks at some length about his impending death. In chapter 13, Jesus washes his disciples feet, a kind of replication of Mary’s act (but with water, not perfume). Jesus shares his ‘last supper’ with the disciples. From here on, Jesus speaks almost only to his closest friends and family. There are no further public sermons. He retreats from the world, as he prepares to die, entering a quiet, reflective space.

We, as part of his closest friends and family, are invited in these last days of Lent to be present with Christ as he walks towards death. 

Devotion

Mary anoints Jesus’ feet. She does not wash them with water to cleanse them, as was typically done for guests, by servants. Nor does she rub oil into his feet to protect them from the dry, dusty roads, as would be done with an important guest, also by servants. Instead, Mary – one of Jesus’ hosts – pours expensive perfume over them. Nard came from the high mountains in India, particularly the Himalayas. It had a sweet and earthy fragrance, that lasted a long time. It was very expensive, and stored in alabaster jars to preserve the fragrance. Mary’s pouring out of this perfume is extravagant. Some suggest that this jar of Nard was her entire dowry. It is an excess of perfume, much like the wine that Jesus created at another banquet (in Cana) was excessive and extravagant.

She washes his feet with her hair. Jewish women treated their hair with modesty, typically covering it for all except their husbands. To let it loose would be seen by some as immoral. It certainly was profoundly intimate; she could have used a cloth, but instead used her hair.

We must imagine Jesus reclining – there were no chairs. So Mary must be on her knees, bowed low over Jesus’ feet, her face almost on his feet, so that her hair can wrap around them to dry them. It is intimate and devoted, a pouring out of her innermost being on Jesus’ feet.

We, like Mary, are invited in these last days of Lent to devote ourselves utterly to Christ as he walks towards the cross.

Death and devotion

Jesus’ response to those who reprimand Mary for being so wasteful poignantly ties together death and devotion. He makes two main points:

  1. He is soon going to die.
    “Leave her alone,” Jesus replied. “It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial” (John 12:7).
    “Leave her alone. Why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing to me… She did what she could. She poured perfume on my body beforehand to prepare for my burial” (Mark 14:6 & 8).
  2. Before he dies, we may devote ourselves to him.
    “You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me” (John 12:8).
    The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want. But you will not always have me” (Mark 14:7).

We, like they, are invited in these last days of Lent to set aside our day to day responsibilities and to make ourselves available to be with Christ.

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Featured image from https://www.gloriadei.ca/blog/worship-june-12