Isaiah 43. 16 – 21
John 12. 1 – 8
The Fifth Sunday of Lent marks a turning point in our Lenten journey, and a chance of pace.
We’ve been looking at the big picture, the arc of Jesus’ ministry, week by week; but from Sunday next week we’ll move to looking at the details, honing in on the narrative, day by day through Holy Week.
And today, in the Church’s calendar, ‘Passiontide’ begins. It marks the beginning of this change of pace, as the great week of the Passion draws ever nearer.
And you might notice a few changes; images have been veiled with purple cloth; the prayers and sentences I use in the liturgy focus more deeply on the coming passion.
But it’s a strange word, isn’t it, for describing this holy season: ‘passion.’ We often use the word today to describe intense emotional excitement; we might say we are passionate about a particular interest, or indeed a particular person.
But at its root, ‘passion’ means ‘suffering.’ So the word that describes this season has something in it of both the agony and the ecstasy of our journey from Good Friday to Easter Day; and indeed the agony and ecstasy of our experience of human life.
And this duality is in our Gospel reading today, in abundance. This passage is set in a sort of in-between time; the calm before the storm, if you like.
We’ve reached the climax of the great signs in John’s Gospel, the great miracles that Jesus performs in the first part of the Gospel. Just before today’s passage, Jesus wept over the death of his friend Lazarus, and brought him back to life.
And just after today’s passage, John’s focus turns towards the passion, as Jesus rides into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.
And in today’s domestic scene, placed in the midst of such cosmically significant events – we have something of the agony and the ecstasy of the passion.
The ecstasy, in the joy of Lazarus, come back from the dead; a sign of the power that Jesus has, and the victory that he will win over the powers of death on Easter Day.
And the agony, in Mary anointing Jesus’ feet as one would anoint a body for burial; a sign of the terrible death that he will have to undergo, in order to bring about this victory.
But why, you might ask, does John put the agony after the ecstasy? Why does the anointing of Jesus’ feet happen after the raising of Lazarus? We know that Good Friday comes before Easter Day
Well I think this has something quite profound to say to us, at this turning point in the Gospel: and this turning point in our liturgical year.
That we experience the agony in the light of the ecstasy. We experience the darkness of Good Friday, as people who know that Christ is already risen.
And because of this, in the agonies of our experience of life we keep hold of the knowledge that God has power over it, to bring good out of the darkest situations. As Isaiah says, to do a new thing; to make ways to him in the wildernesses of life; rivers of hope in the deserts of our despair.
But it’s not easy, is it. When things get really tough, it’s difficult to hold on to something that we can’t see, or measure, or touch.
There is a tension in the meeting of the agony and the ecstasy. And we see this tension in the fifth character of our scene today: Judas.
Don’t forget that Judas has experienced the same thing that Mary and Martha have: he has seen Lazarus raised too. But even this incredible miracle, this amazing sign of the power of Christ, can’t turn him from his path towards betrayal.
Even in the presence of the light of Christ, he is turning towards the darkness. And this is the reality of life. Not all who hear Christ’s words will believe him; very few of those who witnessed his miracles remained with him at the cross.
And many reject the good today. Many seek their own gain at the expense of others. Many actively seek to do harm. We still have the poor with us; there is still great inequality, and as Jesus warns us in the last line of this Gospel, perhaps there always will be.
There are still many for whom the story ends at Good Friday; who live trapped in the darkness of poverty, of exploitation, or abuse.
From next Sunday we will continue our journey into the darkness of Holy Week; on Palm Sunday we will ride with Jesus towards his death; we will come face to face with the agony of the Cross on Good Friday, and the desolation of Holy Saturday.
But we will do it all in the knowledge that the ecstasy of Easter Day awaits us. That death and darkness don’t have the last word.
So I encourage you, implore you!, to enter into this great week as fully as you can. It is difficult to confront the agony, even with the light of Easter in front of us.
But there is one more sign in this passage, and it gives us a clue about how to live with this tension between the agony and the ecstasy; and what we can do for those in the darkness.
Mary washes Jesus’ feet with her hair; a sign of the night of Maundy Thursday, when Jesus will wash his disciples’ feet, and give them a new commandment to do the same; to love one another as he has loved them. To transform their relationships, and ultimately transform the world, with love.
The deeper we can enter into Christ’s passion, the agony and the ecstasy: the greater that transformation will be within us. And if we are transformed, maybe we can transform others too. Amen.