Holy Week – it’s a rich but difficult week, filled with imperial politics and religious collusion, with betrayal, suffering, abandonment, and death.
I appreciate Holy Week for all sorts of reasons. I’m almost always grateful for its annual appearance. But I can’t say that I look forward to it, exactly. I can’t imagine any of us needing, much less wanting still more reminders about corrupt institutional systems and state-sponsored torture and mob violence. For that, we can just turn on the evening news – or keep up with presidential politics.
Last Sunday, many Christians heard some biblical texts that sounded a note of encouragement, subtle though it may have been.
We heard the ancient prophet Isaiah remind us that God is always about to do a “new thing,” make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.
We heard Paul tell the Philippians that just trying harder at religious observance is basically rubbish. Faith is not about our own grasping after God; it is, rather, realizing ever more deeply that God in Christ has grasped us, has made us God’s very own, Paul says.
And as we embark yet again on a river of grief and loss this coming week, John reminded us that Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead; a reminder that love is strong, stronger than even the waters of death itself.
It’s interesting to me, though, that in that particular story at the beginning of John’s twelfth chapter, John directs our attention elsewhere; he makes resurrection almost an afterthought, a parenthetical remark.
He shifts the spotlight to a dinner party and a circle of close, intimate friends. Jesus is in Bethany, in the household he loved with the people he loved – Mary and Martha and their brother, Lazarus, “whom he had raised from the dead,” John writes. Oh, and Lazarus was also at the dinner table.
Quite honestly, if I’m sitting down to dinner with someone who had just recently been dead, I think I would have some questions. At the very least, I think I might want to pause and say, “So…how are you feeling?”
But no, John rushes past that part, as if he’s eager for us to see something else. He shows us two things actually, that have puzzled scholars and commentators for a long time.
First, Mary does something rather strange and scandalous. She breaks out that expensive, scented ointment, an aromatic lotion that she has perhaps been saving for a special occasion. And it is expensive – worth nearly a year’s salary!
Mary then proceeds to anoint the feet of Jesus with this precious lotion and then wipes his feet with her hair.
This is strange? Yes. And scandalous: Feet are not anointed unless you’re dead. Faces are anointed, heads are anointed – but here, Mary tends to the feet, and moreover, lets down her hair in public. Women didn’t do that in the presence of guests, not even in their own home.
Then the second peculiar thing: Judas was there.
Even John seems to think this was odd. Remember, John writes, this is the one who betrayed Jesus! And, he adds, he was a thief!
John, by the way, is the only one of the gospel writers to call Judas that – as if John doesn’t want u
s to miss how terribly strange it is to find Judas included in that circle of intimates, in that household Jesus held so dear.
Yes, all of this is puzzling – and I think John wanted it to be.
I think John wanted the tenderness of this ancient household to be just as unnerving and disorienting as resurrection. Better still: the fruit of resurrection is precisely an unimaginable intimacy.
Love is strong, stronger than even death, stronger, therefore, than all the forces that would divide and fragment us, all the hateful speech that breeds violence, all the categorical classifications that make us view each other with suspicion, as threats, as enemies.
For John, love scandalizes by dismantling the barriers between men and women, and even between the betrayer and the betrayed, and still more – bridging the gap between Creator and creature.
And all this around a dinner table as beloved friends share a meal.
I’m so intrigued that some of the earliest Christian communities and commentators read nearly every story in John’s gospel as a Eucharistic story, a story about the Table.
So this coming week I will be taking John’s story with me, something like a talisman of hope. I’ll take and cling to what John wanted us to see: Jesus sits at table, the bestower of life from the dead who is about to die, welcoming the intimate touch of a woman who should not have touched him and the companionship of the one who would betray him.
Resurrection is shocking, not least for the kind of intimacy it creates.
Perhaps a mashup of all three biblical texts we heard last week would help, too. Perhaps mushing Isaiah, Paul, and John together we can find some buoyancy for the week ahead.
The mashup might sound something like this:
I am about to do a new thing, God says. I will take hold of you, and make you my very own; you shall be my own beloved friends.
May this holiest of weeks bring all of us closer to the Friend…