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A Lenten Lazarus for Holy Week

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_anoints_jesus

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 Jjudas_jesusohn 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…last_supper_judas

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Pay Attention: Everyday Mysticism in Lent

Resurrection in the throes of Lent? Many Christians had a big dose of exactly that this morning as we heard about the valley of the dry bones in Ezekiel and the story in John’s gospel about Jesus raising Lazarus from death.lazarus_tomb

So, that’s a bit odd. Isn’t this season for journeying toward suffering, torture, pain, and death? What’s all this resurrection business doing lurking around in such a somber season?

My answer: the invitation to practice everyday mysticism.

Bible stories sometimes make this difficult to see. Those highly stylized stories can sound as if they were unfolding in a mythological space far removed from the gritty particulars of ordinary, daily life. Those stories actually happen in real places with real people, people with particular histories and sensibilities, people with particular races and cultures and politics, people with joys, sorrows, triumphs, tragedies, and families.

I’m struck by the way John frames the story about Lazarus with touching details drawn from ordinary, household life. Lazarus and his two sisters, Mary and Martha, were apparently close friends of Jesus. He spent time with them, perhaps even quite a bit of time, in their Bethany household.

I imagine Jesus going to Bethany to get out of the spotlight, a place to relax and to take some time off from a hectic public life, put his feet up, and unwind – just as many of us do in intimate households of good friends.

This makes the illness and death of Lazarus all the more poignant. This wasn’t a stranger that Jesus just happened to encounter; it was Lazarus, a friend, a companion, a confidant, someone like family. Upon seeing Mary and Martha grieving near the tomb of Lazarus, Jesus himself weeps.

John’s gospel presents what many theologians refer to as a “high Christology.” The very Word of God, present with God from the beginning of all things, through whom all things were made, this Word, John declares, becomes human flesh (John 1:14).

My own thinking and study on that stunning declaration is often enhanced by engaging with the great work done at the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences at the Graduate Theological Union. I’m thinking particularly of the recent public forum they hosted on “deep incarnation.”

Rather than seeing Jesus as only a significant historical figure of the past, on the one hand, or on the other as a unique and thus isolated moment of divine revelation, incarnation is instead the story of God’s reach into the very tissues of material and biological existence.

Ponder that for a moment: the infusion and penetration of the divine deep into matter itself, down to the very cellular even quantum level. Ponder if you can that uncanny, unfathomable, and mysterious bond between God and God’s creation.

John, I think, would heartily concur with that view, and then quickly remind us that this very Word of God made flesh actually wept over the death of a friend, a friend known in the ordinary, everyday intimacies of household life.

John charts what Bill Countryman (among others) has called a “mystical path” into God’s own life. I used to think that meant that I needed to find a different path. “Mysticism,” after all, is for spiritual Olympians – monks and nuns, desert hermits, anchorites, abbots, and abbesses – or at the very least, for those who are better than I am at the daily discipline of prayer and meditation.

dinner_partyBut no, John’s mystical path can also be traced by crashing at a friend’s house after a long day, or by trying to comfort dear friends in the midst of grief, or by tidying up a dirty kitchen after a household meal.

Brother Lawrence, a seventeenth century monastic and mystic in Paris, spent most of his working hours in the monastery’s kitchen, cooking and cleaning. He once said, “I felt Jesus Christ as close to me in the kitchen as I ever did in the Blessed Sacrament.”

He could say that, it seems to me, because he paid attention.

There are many different ways to observe this Lenten season, whether getting away for a silent retreat, giving up chocolate, or volunteering at a food bank.  What we do matters far less than paying attention while we do it. I’ve come to appreciate Lent for precisely that, the simple but profound invitation to pay attention and to notice the deep incarnation of God in the most ordinary rhythms of daily life.

Whatever it is you need to do to pay attention and to notice, that is your Lenten discipline. And it’s never too late to start.

It’s never too late to pay attention and encounter the mystery of God in the embrace of a friend, in the convivial chatter over a shared meal, in the random exchange with a grocery clerk, in workplace politics, in the backyard bloom of a rose, in the wag of a happy dog’s tail, in a hike through the nearby regional park.

John insists on this: the mystic lives an ordinary life in ordinary rhythms every day. That’s where God is. And it’s never too late to notice.

It’s never too late to notice the mystery of divine love that draws people together in households of intimates, a love that sometimes, perhaps inevitably, breaks our hearts.

It’s never too late, as Martha and Mary discovered, to notice that mystery of divine love stirring deep within us, even in our grieving.

It stirs there with the promise of new life.