Almighty God, whose most dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered loss, and entered not into glory before he was crucified, Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace, through Jesus Christ our Lord
That wonderful Collect sets the tone for this most holy of weeks.
Every year we are invited, once again, to immerse ourselves in the story, to join our Lord on the Via Dolorosa, so that by staying close to Jesus and entering into the mystery of God's death,we can be touched afresh with resurrection hope.
That's the point of the week, and so it is a week when the question I love most for preaching and Bible study comes into its own.
I wonder...I wonder where YOU are in the story.
You see, in this week of all weeks, the boundaries that separate past and present, that divide 1st century Jerusalem from 21st century Coventry, seem so thin that they are porous...in this week, our ordinary lives can be put on hold for a while as we explore again what it means to accept the invitation to walk the way of the cross. The people whom we meet along the way belong in an alien world, so far away from us – yet they seem very very close. Of course they are familiar from their annual appearance in the Passion-tide drama...but they are familiar too because their personalities echo aspects of ourselves. “All human life is here” is a slogan that could apply as much to the Holy Week gospels as to any tabloid paper, for truly these people of the Passion hold up mirrors, so that we may learn more about ourselves, and come to understand both how and why this great story is our story, this song ours.
Monday...after the high excitement of his entry into Jerusalem, the cheering crowds, the puzzled faces, after the hopes and dreams and prophecies fulfilled, after the angry whispers in dark corners, after all this Jesus leaves the city. He seeks an oasis of calm, somewhere he feels safe, among friends. He sits relaxed in the moment, looking neither to past nor to future.
And then suddenly she is there.
Around the table the convivial buzz falters and dies into silence.
Perhaps you're with them, aghast at the sudden unwelcome interruption.
How could she?
Mary who has sat at Jesus feet and heard his teaching. Mary who has dared to rebuke him for responding too slowly when her family needed help. Mary, emotional, embarrassing Mary, turns the evening upside down with a gesture of pure theatre – or is it pure love?
What is going on as she pours out that costly perfume, the dearest thing she owns?
It seems to me that so many of the events of Holy Week stand as parables for us.
Mary is demonstrating wild, extravagant love – but the love that she feels is as nothing compared to the love that will be revealed for all the world to see on Friday.
She has adopted the reckless generosity that is the currency of the Kingdom, - understanding that nothing – NOTHING – is worth more than loving Jesus and being loved by him.
It's a lesson that I still struggle with...longing to give up those things that are precious to me, but holding onto them despite myself, - aspiring to the total abandonment that would see me throwing myself into Jesus's arms, but holding back, “guilty of dust and sin”.
Oh to be Mary – knowing how much she has been forgiven, and loving in proportion...
Mary, who made the choice to stay close to Jesus no matter what.
Mary, who will, in time, be the first witness of the resurrection.
But for now there's another struggle playing out – presented in microcosm in the gospel reading, as Judas challenges her lavish gift, with an argument that seems only sensible.
What a wicked waste!
Why was this perfume not sold and the money given to the poor?
He can see nothing but the immediately practical, knows the cost of everything but the value of nothing, but Mary has but one focus – the amazing man who has given her back her brother, and given her too a sense of her own worth, her right to hear, receive and, in due course, share the gospel for herself.
And, as she pours out that ointment Jesus recognises it as a gesture of unconditional love and perhaps he files it away, as a parable that he could use himself, maybe quite soon...
Love poured out...filling the space with its fragrance... embracing the beloved, transforming the lover, and all those with eyes to see.
Were the whole realm of nature mine that were a present far too small
Love, so amazing, so divine
Demands my soul, my life, my all.