May I wish you all a Happy and Joyous Easter!
WE are used, as human beings, to the concept of glory – of seeing in the great achievements of great people, Roger Bannister running the sub-four minute mile, Neil Armstrong walking on the moon, Sir Steve Redgrave winning five gold medals in consecutive Olympic games. It is something wonderful, something which points beyond the realms of normal human existence, and ultimately to the transcendent, to God, the source and origin of all glory.
And yet, in this evening’s gospel, after a description of the Last Supper, we see Judas Iscariot going out to betray Jesus, to hand him over to the Jews, while Jesus tells him ‘what you are going to do, do quickly’. Night falls. It is a time of darkness, not of light, evil will triumph over good and all will be lost. The disciples, Jesus closest and most intimate friends will scatter leaving him alone. Even Peter, the acknowledged leader of the disciples, will deny his Lord three times despite his protestations to the contrary. This picture of sadness, fear, and betrayal does not appear at first sight to be very promising material for the glorification of Jesus Christ the son of God, the eternal Word of the father. The actions of the Last Supper are finished: the washing of his disciples’ feet, the institution of the Eucharist, the sharing of his body and blood which looks to the cross and beyond to the new life of the kingdom of God.
And so Jesus begins a series of farewell discourses, reflections upon what he has done and is about to do, which express the heart of the Christian faith in action, which show us most fully who and what Jesus is and what he does. In this, the apostle Peter, a man who thinks before he speaks, states his commitment to our Lord. In the events that are to come, his resolve will turn through fear to denial. This is a profoundly human response: our initial zeal can, through fear and the pressures of this world, fizzle away. We are, all of us, at one level, no different to Peter. For all our good intentions can end up sacrificed upon the altar of expediency. And like Peter the inadequacy of our good intentions must be exposed before we can follow. Peter trusted in God, he asked for forgiveness and unlike Judas he trusts in God for healing and forgiveness.
Traditionally God’s glory is glimpsed in the light of the divine presence that presents which gives the law to Moses and makes his face shine. It is the glory of the Transfiguration. And yet, having washed his disciples’ feet and fed them at the table and being about to be betrayed abandoned and denied by his closest followers, Jesus is entering his hour of glory. He will in the words of the prophet Isaiah restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back the survivors of Israel; he will make us, his people, the light of the nations so that his salvation may reach to the ends of the earth. Thus, the saving work of our Lord’s passion, death, and resurrection shows us in the deepest and most intimate way what God’s glory is really like. We cannot, if the truth be told, understand it, it is mysterious. We need rather to enter into it, to be in a relationship with God through his reconciliation and Love: to be healed by him, restored by him. It is a strength shown in weakness, action shown through passivity. Understanding this turns the world around: when in his passion he is clothed in a purple robe, given a Crown of Thorns and reed for a sceptre, he really is the King of the Jews. Pontius Pilate ends up proclaiming to the entire world the fact of Jesus kingship, a sign fixed to his Cross to show the world what true glory and kingship are.
The events of his passion are clearly foretold in Scripture, in the prophets, Isaiah and Jeremiah. Having told the people of Israel how this is to be brought about, Scripture is fulfilled, its meaning is deepened, it is shown to be true as coming from the source of all truth, God himself. In the events of his passion, trial, death, and resurrection Jesus shows the world what God’s love, reconciliation, and healing are like. He shows us the lengths to which the Father will go to embrace the prodigal son of humanity. And there is no price which he is not willing to pay to save you me and all of the human race.
In the events of the next few days, we will see how God’s salvation can reach to the ends of the Earth. The proclamation of the Gospel is the work of the church, it is our work: yours and mine which is done so that the world may believe. The world may choose to reject this message but that does not mean that it can and will fail. Christ’s victory is total and complete. In spite of his being rejected by the Jews Christ was ready to conquer by dying. But he did not set out to be rejected: his work was not a ritual suicide; it was an outpouring of love. So we can ask, what did he set out to do in his mission to Israel? Shall we not say that he brought the divine life into the world of humanity so that it overflowed upon them and through them into union with itself? What else? He formed a fellowship with them which not death itself, not anyone’s death, be it his or theirs, should break: for he was King in the everlasting kingdom of God – grounded in a relationship of love, restoring humanity to God, and bringing about a new Creation as the second Adam, feeding us with himself, giving us the hope of heaven, and the possibility of being filled with Divine life. This then is true glory, expressed through selfless love, humility, pain and rejection. This is the true balm of Gilead, pointed to in Mary’s anointing of Jesus’ feet. This is how the world is healed. Let us turn to him, come to him, and ask for his healing love and mercy. Let us be transformed through his grace and lay down our lives for him.
LET ME BEGIN this evening by asking you all a question: when was the last time something extraordinary and unexpected happened to you? If not yourself then someone you know, and something you saw. Take a moment to recall it, shut your eyes, picture it in your mind, feel the emotions, smell the smells, relive it. In a similar way we should ﬁnd it both strange and surprising to be confronted with this picture from this evening’s gospel. Jesus, throughout his earthly ministry, has shown particular care for the poor, the needy, and the outcast, they have been fed by the disciples at their own expense and healed and welcomed by Jesus: they see the kingdom of God in their midst. They are to be loved and cared for by us as Christians.
And so, the picture of a lavish expense, of a reckless generosity, strikes us as odd. It goes against the grain, it’s almost as though there’s something wrong here. We should be alert to the fact that something important is happening in the gospel account. Mary’s anointing of Jesus is done in preparation for his burial, after his suffering and death on the cross, before he is laid in a stranger’s tomb. Straight after his triumphant entry into Jerusalem the day before, on a donkey just like his mother on the way to Bethlehem, or the Holy Family going into exile in Egypt, Our Lord’s mind and heart are set on the events of Good Friday – and this is exactly where our hearts and minds should be too. The King of the Jews will reign triumphantly from the Cross: as both priest and victim, the Lamb of God (who will be sacrificed upon the altar of the cross to bring about the true Passover of God’s people). He is prepared for his death and burial with the same substance which was burnt upon the altar of incense in the temple, symbolising the fact that Christ’s service, suffering, and death will be a fragrant offering to God the Almighty Father.
The cost of the ointment which Mary used was (in rough terms) a year’s wages for an agricultural labourer. Taking something worth ten or twelve thousand pounds in today’s money to anoint someone’s feet is an act of reckless generosity. As such, it points towards the outpouring of God’s love upon his world – it shows us the lengths to which God in Christ is willing to go to save and heal a world wounded by Sin – nothing is too costly, no expense is spared for the love of us, sinful humanity. These days of holy week are unique, and the sacrifice of Christ upon the cross is a singular event, whose effects are felt through time.
To reinforce the importance of the events leading up to our Lord’s passion and the passion itself, this week we find ourselves reading with the Church a number of portions of the book of the prophet Isaiah and in particular, those sections known as the four servant songs. In these the prophet describes the persecution, suffering and death of the servant of the Lord. The church has always seen these passages of Scripture as pointing toward Jesus, his suffering and death. His passion is prefigured in these prophetic utterances. We see in the events of this week a rollercoaster of emotion, which starts with a triumphant entry into the Messiah into Jerusalem only to end in trial, torture, and death.
In this evening’s first reading we see the silence of our Lord before the high priest and before Pilate, it is a picture of someone filled with God’s spirit, the chosen one in whom God delights. The events of the passion will show us both what God’s love and God’s justice are. What this will bring about is the healing of the nations: the opening of the eyes of the blind, the freeing of captive humanity from the prison of sin, from the darkness of our dungeon into the new light and life of Easter. That such wonderful things should be inaugurated by an act which mirrors God’s reckless and overflowing generosity is not that surprising at all.
It also teaches us that our human response to God in worship should likewise be extravagant, mirroring God’s response to us. Our worship should be costly in terms of time and effort and expense. We should try to give our best in every sense, solely for the glory of God, and to mark things out as a special, extraordinary, not of this world. As we gather around the altar to be fed by the Lord with his body and blood, we partake in the one, perfect, sufficient sacrifice of Calvary, made ever-present on the altars of God’s church. We are nourished and transformed by God’s saving love. So then, as we walk in our Lord’s footsteps, let us pray that he will nourish as in both word and sacrament, perfecting our human nature by his grace, and enabling us to live his risen life in thought and word and deed that the world may believe