Isaiah 42:1-7. John 12:1-11
The events in tonight’s gospel take place before the Palm Sunday procession. I’m going to take the stories in the Biblical order.
Here are some themes that strike me.
- Preparing for death: Mary’s anointing Jesus with oil normally reserved for anointing the dead.
- Hypocrisy and dissimulation: Judas pretending to object to the waste of oil because of what it might have bought the poor, whereas maybe he wanted it for himself.
- Jesus doing the unexpected: riding a donkey (Zechariah 9:9. Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion! See, your king comes to you, righteous and victorious, lowly and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey).
- Jesus facing the future squarely: his cheerfulness, and the crowd’s acclamation. Faces are important in this story.
Preparing for death
We live in a society that refuses to look death full in the face. People pretend it won’t happen. They go to great lengths to try and delay it, even when it’s obviously inevitable. The medical profession doesn’t help. We spend money on seeking a cure for this or that disease as if there’s some hope that we can live for ever. We may be cured of cancer today but as sure as eggs is eggs we’ll die of something else tomorrow.
This always leads to trouble. If you pretend it won’t happen, you can’t set things straight before you go. There’s unfinished business. If you can’t set things straight, you are left with regret and guilt. You can’t say that you wished you’d not said so-and-so, and you can’t say, before it’s too late, what you should have said years ago. And all that is the overwhelming cause of grief and weeping and family tensions at funerals. It’s in contrast to the death of a friend of mine, who knew she was dying, told the world, and wrote her funeral homily, and characteristically witty it was too. Our refusal to be straightforward about death results in grave disappointments.
For six months of my life I worked in a children’s hospital just off the Brixton High Road in south London. I saw there babies with incurable conditions having operation after operation, and I was required to insert drips into their tiny veins whilst seeing their eyes looking at me. The inhumanity and cruelty of it. I plucked up courage to suggest that baby Anthony should be allowed to die with dignity. The reaction was swift: I was reprimanded in no uncertain terms. He died the next week after yet another operation. It is not my intention to start a debate tonight on end-of-life issues—that’s for another time maybe—but I’m using this as an illustration of how many of us refuse to confront one of the realities of animal existence on this planet. Death comes to all≠. By pretending otherwise we cause grief for ourselves and for those that love us.
This sanitisation of death, this refusal to look it full in the face, is a consequence of urbanisation. In Derbyshire and Ireland, my parishes covered large rural areas. Rural folk have a robust attitude to death. They see it day by day. Animals are killed so that we might eat. One of my churchwardens thought nothing of shoving her arm up a cow’s vagina to pull out a dead calf. Now, I acknowledge that my attitude to death may be peculiar: not only was I brought up in a farming village, but for 25 years I was using human cadavers to teach anatomy: cutting them up, examining them and handling them.
I’m convinced that our attitude to death needs realigning. Tonight’s Gospel and the Palm Sunday procession seem to say likewise. Our Lord faces death full in the face. Face: earlier in the gospel Jesus came down from a mountain with a shining face. Then he set his face to go to Jerusalem. And now acknowledging to Judas—I rather like Judas by the way—that he is being anointed for death. The Easter message is that death leads to new life. If you want to build on a new site, it is wise to clear it of rubble so that good foundations can be laid. This is new life following death of the old. And so, of course, is the resurrection story.
Biologically speaking, death is part of life. The cells of our bodies are dying all the time, and new life replaces them. Skin cells are constantly being shed and replaced. Blood cells past their sell-by date are replaced all the time. There are lots of other examples, but here is a startling example of the necessity of cell death. When a fetus is developing in the uterus, the hands and feet start off as spade-like things, a bit like fists. You might think that fingers and toes grow out from the spades, but you’d be wrong. What happens is that rather than digits growing out, four strips of cells are programmed to die, leaving digits remaining between them. If not enough cells die, we get webbed fingers and toes. If more strips die we get more fingers than usual. Here is another example. When a bone is fractured and reset, the two ends are rarely aligned properly. The body copes with this by killing off bone cells in the wrong place, and laying down new ones where needed.
Biology has no hesitation in killing off the old in order that the new can flourish. We can’t move on if we try to preserve the past. That is why, despite my love of architecture and liturgy, I oppose the conservationist lobby. We must face death when necessary. We can’t engage with the present if we refuse to accept the inevitability of death, because we will be tempted to put off things that need attention before it’s too late.
As the donkey procession (allegedly) arrives from the east, history books tell us another procession arrives from the west. At Passover the Jewish people celebrate deliverance from the Egyptian oppressors. But here they are now under Roman oppressors. A recipe for civil unrest. The Romans were nervous. So the Roman governor rode to Jerusalem from the ‘capital’ Caesarea on the coast, with military reinforcements in case of trouble. The procession from the west was one of Roman imperial power. Pilate rides a war horse, Jesus rides a donkey. Empire versus individual. Mockery of imperial power. Turning the tables of convention as much as turning the tables in the Temple. Wisdom from a donkey. There’s a scene in Attenborough’s film Gandhi which always catches my attention, and that is when the ship docks in Bombay, some British bigwig is disembarking in full dress uniform to the sounds of bands and military display. At the same time, Gandhi dressed as a local is disembarking further up the quayside. The crowds are with Gandhi.
I wonder which procession we will be part of? Will we part of the naked emperor’s procession that lusts for power, that fawns over those who have it? that fiddles expenses claims? Will we like them go for the puffed up image like an overstuffed balloon that will soon burst? Or will we be part of the procession of straightforwardness, of humility, of service? Will we be in the procession that faces stark reality, that embraces death in order that something much more glorious can rise? Death of worldly ambition. Look at the contemporary church and see how the power-lust of bishops leads them to put the needs of the institution before those of the individual.
Facing the future mindfully means killing all that holds us back. It can be very painful. We begin to see ourselves as others see us. We realise that we are not as good as we thought we were. We realise how we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. We need to grieve our lost attitudes, our lost expectations, our lost dreams. We need to let go of what we want, or wanted, and accept the grace of God to resurrect us. We must die in order to live. Death of our self-obsession enables us to rise:
As larks, harmoniously / And sing this day Thy victories: / Then shall the fall further the flight in me.
As I grow older, I look back on some of the things I used to be so passionate about and wonder what it was about them that so obsessed me. Obsession is the right word, because these passions blinkered my vision and limited my action. A couple of humdrum examples. I once had a huge collection of books: they were my friends. I came to see that they limited me. Not only did they cost a lot of money, they also dictated the type of house we could move to. And after all, when one has sucked the marrow out of a book, one might as well pass it on! (How many books do we all have for show, unread and likely to remain so?) In my teens, cathedral music introduced me to beauty, lifting me from a drab village existence. I allowed it to rule my choices for too long. Now it sustains me without, I hope, dictating to me.
These are not evil things in themselves (though many clergy harbour evil thoughts about church musicians—or is it the other way round?) but they limited me, they narrowed my vision. They stole some of “me” and prevented me from being fully me, in a similar way to that of any addiction. I am still afflicted by things—we all are—but now I’m slightly more aware of the symptoms of addiction. As we get older we find ourselves attached to fewer and fewer things. Our vision becomes less restricted. We are moving into a wide, unfettered place. The view from the road from Sleaford to King’s Lynn is an image that I have in mind for this wide view. This notion of being in a wide place is one of the Hebrew images of salvation, and it is one that Jesus teaches. If we die to earthly attachments, we are in this place, and we can focus on what matters: love of God, and love of neighbour. I like the Buddhist idea that all disease is caused by attachments—or hatred, which is just negative attachment.
Eternal not everlasting
There is a kind of renewal in all this, and the key to it is to live in the present. Our Lord’s teaching again and again emphasizes that we need to do just this. Learn from the past certainly, but don’t live in it. Look to the future, but don’t waste time laying up treasures. Live now, in the moment. This, actually, is what eternal means. When we hear ‘everlasting life’ in church services, we often get the wrong idea, and it would be better, and more accurate a translation of the Greek, to use eternal. It’s not quantity or length of time that matters, but quality. Eternal, timeless, out of time, in the present, Divine. Thy kingdom come on earth, here and now. Trust the teaching of Jesus: live in the present moment, and do your best in that moment. We can do no more, and we need do no more. In one sense this is easy to do, and in another it’s extraordinarily difficult when we are surrounded by the petty irritations that life throws up day by day, when we see the injustice that surrounds us, and when we are governed, as we are, by prejudices and faulty behaviour patterns bred into us by our upbringings. But see all these for what they are, and trust and hope.
Back to death
If we are to attain eternal life, here and now, we must face death and die to worldly trivia—the vain things that charm us most. Having divested ourselves of these burdens we walk off lighter. ‘My yoke is easy and my burden is light’ – light in both senses, light because of the light of the world, and light because we are less burdened by weighty impedimenta from the past.
Jesus’ last hours complete the incarnation. Our Lord gave up a divine dwelling for human frailty, and now he suffers the stripping away of dependence on self to fall into he arms of the divine. ‘It is finished’. This is a renunciation that we recall every time the priest utters the consecration prayer at Mass. It is a renunciation that we join in this week, and every week. And the task for us, sisters and brothers, is to accompany the Lord on his journey of death in order to fall into the arms of the divine.