We’re in the final week of Lent, before Holy Week begins with Palm Sunday next week. So we’re drawing closer to the remembrance of the death of Jesus, and the readings are leaning towards it in different ways, too.
Let’s dwell on the gospel reading, first, with that dramatic and poignant scene of Mary of Bethany hosting Jesus to dinner in her home, along with her sister Martha and brother Lazarus, and there she anoints Jesus’ feet with a rich, costly ointment, and wipes his feet with her hair. It’s only a week before Passover, when Jesus will die, and already there’s an active plot to have him killed, according to John’s gospel. Jesus has been speaking with his disciples about his impending death, but they can’t hear it or understand it.
Mary knows, at some level, that she’s going to lose Jesus. And he knows that she knows. That’s what makes the scene so tender and heartbreaking. “She bought it for my burial,” says Jesus in Mary’s defence when Judas criticizes the extravagant gesture. Death is standing like a dark shadow in the room, and Mary is grieving and loving Jesus as the shadow lengthens and approaches. It’s a scene of wordless lamentation and love.
In the epistle Paul is writing to the Philippians from prison in Rome, where he will be executed. And he knows it. The shadow of death is approaching him too. But there’s a thread of real joy in this epistle, and Paul writes that he’s pressing forward eagerly to what lies ahead. All he wants is to know Christ and to share in his death and resurrection. He knows who he is: a forgiven sinner, a transformed man, someone with weaknesses who has nevertheless found strength in Christ. So it no longer matters to him whether he lives or dies, because, as he says elsewhere, he’s already died to his old life, and now it’s not he who lives, but Christ in him. There’s a remarkable sense of freedom and joy in this, as he looks to the death that awaits him.
And then there’s the passage from Isaiah, spoken and written for a nation suffering from conquest, exile and oppression. Think of the suffering of Ukrainians that we’re witnessing now. But Isaiah doesn’t see a hopeless future: he sees a way through the wilderness time. “Don’t look at the past,” he says, “God is doing something new, now.” The present reality is dire, but Isaiah is a prophet of hope.
What lies ahead for us, globally or nationally? Personally? Are better times coming, or darker, more difficult ones? I know that many fear that the long and relatively stable period following the end of World War 2 is now coming to an end, and we’re entering a time of multiple crises. I often hear people my children’s age, in their 30s, saying that they’re choosing not to have children because they don’t want to bring a child into a world that’s facing an ecological crisis, greater extremes of wealth and poverty, political upheaval, even the threat of nuclear war.
I’ve also noticed that people of my generation often say they just hope they die before the worst of the future hits, and meanwhile they want to carry on as usual and enjoy life to the max. It’s a form of denial, averting the eyes from the dark shadows ahead and doing the ‘Eat, drink and be merry’ thing as a distraction.
But what should the Christian response be to dark times ahead? Surely it should be neither nihilism nor denial, but should be rooted in our faith in the God who is with us in life, in death, and in the transformation of both. We may walk through the valley of the shadow of death, but fear no evil because God is there. Not that that provides us with an escape route: the road still leads through that valley, just as it led Jesus to the cross and Paul to his execution. But God makes a way in the wilderness, as Isaiah knew.
I suspect that the decades ahead will indeed be years of crisis and pain on a scale most of us have never experienced. Life will not roll along as before. Even the privileged and sheltered will be affected by the challenges and changes ahead. So we need to grieve and lament. We need to cry out in the streets and name the powers that are causing havoc. We need to let aspects of our way of life fall apart, because they’re no longer serving us or others well. Some things we cherish now will need to be allowed to die. There is upheaval and wilderness ahead.
But God makes a way in the wilderness. And, as we’ll say next week on Palm Sunday, the way of the cross proves to be none other than the way to new life.
I was recently given a copy of a book called Refugia, by a Christian writer and teacher, Debra Rienstra. Refugia is the biological term for places of refuge or shelter where life can endure in times of crisis such as volcanic eruptions, or fires, or massive climate changes. New life emerges from these places of refugia. And Debra Rienstra argues that Christians are called to be people of refugia – not to try to escape from or deny the crises that face us, but to see them as opportunities for transformation, through the God of new-life-beyond-death, whom we know in Jesus.
Rienstra writes about the Israelites escaping slavery in Egypt and entering the wilderness on their journey to a new home. They hate the wilderness at first, and complain mightily, even saying God brought them there to die. The fact is, she writes, God did bring them into the desert to die. They had to die to their slavish ways in order to be completely reconstructed into a free people. They had to give up idolatries and learn a whole new set of laws, a whole new way to encounter a mysterious God… It took a long time, a whole generation. The elders who entered the desert did not come out. Only the young people made it to the other side – because old ways are hard to give up, and trust is so hard to learn… Deconstruction and reconstruction are never easy. God knows that wilderness is the place to do them, though, because there you can no longer cling to your comforting illusions. [ Refugia, p.40,41]
“Trust is so hard to learn.” And it’s virtually impossible to learn trust when we feel comfortably in control. But I believe we’re entering darker, more difficult times when we won’t be in control and comfortable, and we will need to learn to trust more deeply – trust in the God who makes a way and refugia in the wilderness; the God who gives us the gift of community, so that we’re not alone; the God who is revealed in the loving face of Jesus who takes up his cross and asks us to follow.