It is a commonplace that the Prologue to John’s Gospel –
the mystery of the Incarnation – that we read at Christmas
– echoes Genesis 1. Many people have found in the
whole of John’s Gospel a structure that echoes the
creation narrative of Genesis 1 – as, through the birth
and witness and death and resurrection of the Word made
flesh, the new creation is revealed.
So, as we move towards the events of Holy Week, we find
ourselves on Day 6 in the Johannine structure, the day of
creation of humanity; so, in John 11, immediately before
the Gospel we have just heard, Jesus raises Lazarus from
the dead; there are echoes too of Ezekiel 37, God
breathing life into the dead bones, just as Jesus breathes
new life into the lifeless body of Lazarus, who in today’s
Gospel is eating and drinking with him – as the risen
Christ, of course, is not a ghost – but eats and drinks
with his disciples. Look, says Isaiah – I am doing a new
thing – can you not see? I will make a way in the
wilderness and rivers in the desert.
We have, of course, in our Compline lectures and Tuesday
evenings together been exploring the wilderness in Lent;
so what are we doing, here on Passion Sunday, with
readings that seem to short-circuit Passiontide, and land
us in the middle of humanity restored at the
Resurrection. What is going on?
Well, one way to look at it takes inspiration from our
sisters and brothers in the Eastern Church, who worship
with a liturgy very much based on John’s Gospel; and while
we in the West think of moving through Lent and
Passiontide to the Crucifixion and Resurrection, for the
Orthodox, everything is in the context of the one Easter
that has already happened – and we go most deeply into the
wilderness, if you like, in the confidence that our
salvation has already been accomplished. And we are
after all at a dinner – a reminder, perhaps, of the great
feast of the Kingdom. The Strahov monastery in
Prague has, in its refectory a great frieze of the
eschatological banquet – it shows the angels ministering
to Jesus after his temptations. It is finished, as
Jesus says from the Cross, also in John.
Yet, there is more to it than meets the eye; for if there
is a prefiguring of Easter – there is also a prefiguring
of Maundy Thursday when Jesus washes the disciples’ feet –
something we re-enact in the Liturgy of the Day. And
Jesus is clear here – the foot washing is not simply about
service and humility, but a preparation for death.
Mary has the imagination to see what it is really about –
to perceive the extent and depth and generosity of Jesus’
giving, and to respond in kind. She knows it is very
costly; it is poured out; it is apparently wasted – and it
leaves the poor apparently no better off.
And in this, the two apparently contrasting sides of the
story meet; for, today, we are called to live, and called
We are called, even as we approach passion, to embrace the
generosity of risen life, which is always ours for the
taking – even though it is sometimes easier to remain in
the quiet and dark of the tomb.
And we are called to die; we are called to live the same
letting go, pouring out, apparently wasteful, profligate
generosity of God that is at the heart of the life and
death and resurrection of Jesus – and is reflected in the
generosity of this woman.
Because to learn to live and to learn to die are to learn
to grasp the work of salvation, the overcoming of
sin. And what is sin? It is an economy of
scarcity. That goes right back to the first creation
narrative by the way – for when Adam and Eve are tempted –
suddenly all their attention is focused on the one thing
they don’t have, rather than the almost everything that
So, when we are confronted with the generous profligacy of
God – we might, as the first disciples did – fail utterly
to imagine the significance of what is under our
noses. That’s very human.
Or we may, for all manner of reasons – perversely reject
it, and insist on the economy of scarcity. That’s
Judas, of course – and it leads to betrayal. And
that’s all too human too.
And God’s saving work in Christ is not limited to what we
can imagine for ourselves – for the new creation is the
renewal and redemption of all it.
We can, however, learn to be like this Mary – and to have
the eyes of our imagination opened; and like her, to learn
to die and to learn to live; after all, the great
eschatological banquet is under our very noses – in the
Eucharist we celebrate week in week out. I wonder if