Preacher Revd Sister Margaret Anne McAlister ASSP
Today, the fifth Sunday of Lent, is traditionally know as Passion Sunday, marking the beginning of Passiontide, the latter stages of Lent when, with Mothering Sunday – also known as Laetare Sunday or Refreshment Sunday – behind us, we focus now more closely on Jesus’ passion, and all that he suffered in the last days of his life, culminating in his death by crucifixion on Good Friday. From today the tone of Lent changes. We enter more deeply in our prayers and our imaginations into sharing in Jesus’ sufferings and identifying with the pains that he experienced at the hands of cruel men.
In the Common Worship three year cycle the gospel reading for the eucharist for Passion Sunday always comes from John. In Year A it is the story of the raising of Lazarus. In Year B it is the passage in John which has often been compared with the night Jesus spends in the garden of Gethsemane as described in detail in the other three gospels. For this year – Year C – the gospel reading is the story we have just heard read of Lazarus’ sister Mary anointing Jesus’ feet when he dines at Lazarus’ house just days before his death. In Matthew and Mark it is an anonymous woman who anoints Jesus. Luke places a similar account much earlier in the gospel sequence of events. It is only John’s account that names the woman explicitly as Lazarus’ sister Mary. The context in John of the anointing of Jesus by a woman is not at the house of one of the Pharisees or Simon the leper as in the other gospels, but rather in the home of Lazarus, with Martha and Mary, three of Jesus’ most beloved companions. Jesus had wept at the grave of his friend Lazarus, before he then went on to raise Lazarus from the dead. In John the passage we have today comes in the context of great warmth of hospitality and loving deep friendship. After dinner Mary does something very lavish. She anoints Jesus’ feet with an abundant amount of expensive perfume. The scent of the perfume fills the whole house. It was an extravagant gesture that displayed both gratitude to Jesus for restoring her brother, and also her love for her friend who showed such powerful signs of God wherever he went. But more than that – and Jesus knew this – the anointing was a prophetic sign of Jesus’ forthcoming death and burial.
Mary’s action was so generous and pure and loving that it immediately attracted opposition. Judas Iscariot, who a few days later would betray Jesus, can’t cope with it. He reprimands Mary for not putting the ointment to a more practical purpose, such as selling it and giving the money to the poor. Not that he cared for the poor.
Throughout the four gospel accounts of Jesus’ life we are shown a growing tension between those who side with Jesus and believe in him, and those who directly oppose him. This growing tension is perhaps depicted nowhere so vividly as in John’s gospel account. Wherever Jesus goes there is division: those against him, often the Pharisees, the religious leaders of his day, and those who feel compelled to follow him, and believe in him. It is this divided response to Jesus’ words and actions that will lead to Jesus’ suffering and ultimately his death by crucifixion.
Suffering can come to us in various way, and from different directions. It can come to us from within, or it can come to us from without. The more closely we endeavour to follow Jesus, the more inevitably we will find that suffering will be part of the journey.
Yesterday the clergy of the parish conducted a Marriage Preparation Day for a number of couples who will be getting married in the parish in the coming months. One of the subjects we discussed with the couples to be married was conflict, and how to deal with it. Conflict can enter into even the closest of relationships. It occurred to me yesterday in our discussions that conflict is often – not always of course, but often – the context of some of our greatest sufferings. Especially when there seems little likelihood of a proper resolution to the conflict, whether it is between individuals, families, groups, institutions, nations or whatever. In a sense we could sum up the whole of the gospel accounts – particularly that of John – as a conflict between truth and falsehood, light and darkness as evidenced in the life, ministry, passion, death and resurrection of Jesus.
What was true for Jesus in his earthly life is also – albeit in a different context and on a different scale – true for us. When we speak up for what is right, for example, in a case of injustice, we will meet with opposition and conflict will ensue. Decisions we will have to make on issues that involve ethical questions will often be hard ones to make. At the end of the day, we perhaps need to ask ourselves, would we rather be remembered as Mary who so lavishly anointed Jesus, or as Judas who complained bitterly?
Following Jesus is costly. It will sometimes lead us into situations where we would rather not find ourselves. But as Christians we will know in our heart of hearts that it is better to be in a difficult place with Jesus, than in an easy place without him.
This Passiontide let’s reflect on those episodes in the closing chapters of all four gospels that give such detailed accounts of all that Jesus suffered in his last days on earth. Let us draw strength from these accounts, knowing that in all our own sufferings, Jesus has already been there before us, and that he understands and identifies with our sufferings. Our spiritual aim is to become more Christ-like. As St Paul expressed it in our second reading today from his letter to the Philippians, which he wrote in prison,
“I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.”
Above all, let us journey this Passiontide with hope in our hearts, knowing that resurrection is on the other side of suffering and death. Suffering is never wasted. It certainly wasn’t for Jesus, and it isn’t for us. The Christian message teaches us that suffering can be redemptive, transformative. It is not of course that we seek suffering. Rather we seek to alleviate it. There are countless evils in the world that cause great and unnecessary suffering. The current refugee and migrant crisis is an all too obvious example of how a cruel regime such as ISIL can cause terrible suffering on an almost global scale.
This Passiontide we must hold the victims of such evils earnestly in our prayers. For many of them, their sufferings will go beyond what we may imagine. As for ourselves, sometimes the most valuable lessons we learn in life come about through what we suffer. Suffering can enable us to have a much deeper empathy with others. As Christians we can live in hope, knowing that the power of the risen Christ sustains us all, come what may.