Tonight, we go back to the beginning of John’s Passion narrative. The Sabbath, a week before the Passover which will also fall on a Sabbath that year has just ended at sundown, so it is what we would call a Saturday night, and a dinner has been arranged in Jesus’ honour. The next day will be what we now mark as Palm Sunday, and the high drama will begin.
But in fact, the drama is already under way. The dinner is being thrown at Bethany by the friends Jesus is staying with, just outside Jerusalem. Jerusalem itself would have been packed with pilgrims and about a quarter of a million sheep for the Passover sacrifice, if Josephus the Jewish historian is to be believed, so a village outside town offered quieter quarters. But the friends were Lazarus and his sisters, Mary and Martha, and just a few weeks before Jesus had raised Lazarus from death. That is what John sees as the trigger, rather than the provocation of Palm Sunday, and we get the sense that Jesus knew it, because the emotions run high.
Some perfume was at the heart of the disturbance. They say we remember smells; that meeting them again can whisk us back to the past. One for me is daffodils, which take me back to Easter Saturday in my priest-father’s church in Sheffield, when the ladies of the parish would fill the building with daffodils in little green tin pots. What about you? Well, for John, it could have been this perfume, pure nard, the best, the most aromatic, filling the house with its fragrance, and remembered by him in a stand-out reference, just as Mark remembered the green, green grass of Galilee, when Jesus fed the five thousand.
Judas betrays himself by his reaction, just as he will shortly betray Jesus. He just doesn’t understand the logic of love. He, we think, was wanting to provoke an armed crisis – Iscariot could mean a dagger-man – and hoped that Jesus would take the throne in all human reality. He was looking for regime change, not redemption. And so too, despite St John’s obvious down on him, he probably does want to use the money to give practical help to the poor, but cannot see beyond that to the deeper worth of the love that can feed not just the body but the soul.
Mary gets it though. She senses the love that means Jesus will pour out his life for them, a gift beyond price and of cosmic proportion. So, she in her own ways mirrors its lavishness, and pours out the whole bottle to anoint Jesus’s feet, shockingly wiping them with her let-down hair. The identification of Mary of Bethany with Mary Magdalene is tempting, but probably a red herring. And the point anyway is not sex but passion. As Christ has loved us, remember from yesterday, we are called to love him and each other in return, with a passion. And just as the fragrance of Mary’s act of passion filled the room, so the fragrance of ours is to fill the world. This is the mainspring of Christian mission, a passion for others founded on the passion of Our Lord.
This is the Great Reversal, the moment, as C S Lewis puts it, when the White Witch thought she had killed Aslan, a deeper magic, a deeper law than anything evil knows comes into play, and the devices and desires of evil are sent into reverse, and death gives way to life.
The depth of passion involved actually crackles through the text itself. When in our modern translation we read that “Jesus said, ‘Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial’,” the language has been smoothed out to fit our idea of what scripture should sound like. A closer rendition of the Greek might have something of a Humphrey Bogart tone if you’ll allow the parallel: “Leave the lady alone. It’s hers for my death day,” and the grammar breaks down in a splutter. Young John, I don’t suppose, had seen or smelled anything like it before.
Death and life – the two themes are going to run together and be with us all through the week. Mary’s anointing is with death in mind, but for John it is also an anointing for the kingship that death will bring, an anointing for life. It is the generous gift of a generous God.
O generous love! that He, who smote
In man for man the foe,
The double agony in man
For man should undergo.
Personal and passionate though this was, none of it was happening in private. A formal dinner of this sort – we know it was quite formal because Jesus was reclining at table not sitting, which is why Mary could reach his feet – a formal dinner of this sort was a semi-public affair; and as John tells us the public was prepared to turn up in crowds to witness the spectacle of the dead man Lazarus living, little understanding that another man would soon be dead and alive in a far deeper way.
We happen to have a sort of external confirmation of the stir it caused, which helps authenticate John’s claiming of it as the trigger for the Passion. If you go to Bethany today, you won’t find it. Well, you won’t find it on the ordinary signposts anyway, because since Arab times it has been called El Azariah, Lazarus’s place. The memory lingers, like the fragrance of the perfume and the fragrance of the grave, both irretrievably mingled in Lazarus’s life. And if you do go there today you will find yourself going down and down into his grave before you rise again to rediscover the sun and the rest of the story.
This week will also lead us down before it leads us up, as we listen to John as he shares with us what Alan Ecclestone called a sustained reflection upon the realisation that he was among those whom Jesus loved. The king has come to his people and is showing them his wounds of love: no wonder all the world is going to him and believing him.
And us? Are we going to walk with him still? And will we share his longing to spread the fragrance that can fill and redeem the world?
Sometimes, Lord, I feel poured out too.
Demands press in on me from every side.
I hardly have a minute to call my own.
Yes, Lord – forgive me.
I still count what I keep as gain
And what I give away as loss.
I still patrol the boundary of my self
Watching warily for anything
That will threaten me.
And yet, I know it’s true.
The more I give, the more I receive.
The more I lock the doors of my life,
The more I die.
It’s scary, Lord – but now,
At the beginning of this Holy Week,
I want to take the risk
– the risk of faith.
I want to open my life, Lord, to yours.