Lent V: On Dying

Jesus said to Judas, “Let her be. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial” (John 12:8).

It is, it seems to me, fitting that the recent statement from the Government of Canada on Doctor-Assisted Suicide (or “MAID” as it is being called: Medical Assistance in Dying, to cover nurses and other health-care providers as well) has been released during Lent, as we are on our way toward Jesus’ dying. For dying—Jesus’ dying—stands at the heart of our faith. Nor is it just any dying. It is death on the cross. It is dying in great suffering; suffering and death together. Always, over all we do and say and pray this Lent—over all we do and say and pray in all of our lives—the cross rises, Jesus’ suffering death. And we claim it as our good news.

This is the mystery at the heart of our faith. Jesus’ dying, his suffering death, is Good Friday, our good news.

That suffering death may be good news is very hard to hear. Every instinct cries out against it, because death ends a life that we know to be precious and suffering lays a pall over it. If life and health are good—and they are; our life is from the beginning God’s good gift and God desires us to flourish—then suffering and death are bad. That is why the current euthanasia movement has so much traction. It offers an escape from suffering and if it cannot offer an escape from death, it can at least offer control over it. Death be not proud, we wish to say. We will not let suffering and death get the better of us. And so, in an irony that no one seems to see, we rush to die.

Jesus, however, offers a better way. In his life and in his dying Jesus raises a giant question-mark against all programs of euthanasia, however well-meaning, all programs that encourage us to kill ourselves and each other, and offers a different way. It is a way that is rooted in love. For Jesus, too, knows the agony that death is, in the world. He knows the pain of suffering and he grieves to see it; he reaches out to the blind man and the leper and the woman who is bleeding to take their suffering away. Jesus weeps at Lazarus’ tomb. Jesus knows about the agony of dying and he walks with us there. He is walking with us there today, in John’s Gospel, on this fifth Sunday of Lent (John 12:1-8).

Jesus is in Bethany at the home of his friends, Mary and Martha and Lazarus. His friends are having a dinner party. Martha was serving, and Lazarus was there—Lazarus whom, John adds laconically, Jesus raised from the dead. Mary takes a jar of myrrh, precious and very costly, and pours it all over Jesus’ feet. She anoints his feet with oil and then she dries them with her hair.

And the house was filled, John tells us, with the scent of the myrrh. This is a moment of beauty: Mary’s hair soft on Jesus’ feet, the air rich with myrrh; the beauty of the world poured out in love from a heart that is full.

For Lazarus is at the feast. Lazarus, Mary’s brother, whom she loves: he is at the feast, eating with Jesus, and in the very last chapter he was in the tomb. This is John 12. In John 11, Lazarus died. He was very sick; his sisters begged Jesus to come, and Jesus said, “This sickness is not for death but for the glory of God. It is so that the Son of Man may be glorified in him.” It must have seemed an incomprehensible thing to say; heartless even, when Lazarus lay dying and Jesus could have healed him. “Lord,” Mary would say later, “If you had been here, my brother would not have died.” But Jesus was not there and Lazarus died, and his sisters laid him in the tomb. And at his tomb, Jesus wept. “See how he loved him!” those who saw it said.

And this is the point. Jesus loved Lazarus, and so he wept for his death. He wept with all those who grieved for Lazarus. Jesus wept for love of his friends, and for sorrow at their dying.  For we were not made to suffer and die. We were made to live, to live in joy in the garden, in the midst of the beauty of the earth. And God saw all that he had made, and behold, it was very good. Death is an offense against God’s good creation.

But it is our offense. It goes back to the beginning, and the garden, and our desire not to walk with God. “You shall not die,” the serpent said to the woman, “but you shall be as gods.” No longer walking with God of an evening in the garden, but walking as gods ourselves, walking by ourselves, in our own way. The turn to the individual: it goes back a long way, Genesis suggests.

And it is the defining mark of our time.  To walk without God, I by myself in lonely splendor; to walk without God into a future that finally holds death. This is what we choose, in the sovereignty of the individual. And even in death we turn to ourselves, seeking sovereignty. If I must die, I will do it myself. I will choose the time and the place: help me, we say to each other, to kill myself. In this world I am at the centre of all that is…and so in this world my death is the end.

We are bound by our dying like Lazarus in his grave-clothes. There is no way out.

And it is here that Jesus meets us. Jesus weeps at our solitude, and at our dying. He stands with us at the mouth of the tomb and says, “Lazarus, come out.”

And the dead man came out; his feet and hands bound with burial cloths and his eyes wrapped with a linen band. And Jesus said, “Unbind him, and let him go.”

 Lazarus lives at Jesus’ word; Lazarus lives whom Jesus loved, and the world sees in the Son of Man the glory of God.

Is it any wonder that Mary’s heart overflows? My brother who was dead is alive again; he who was lost is found. Because of the love of Jesus he is alive again, because Jesus comes to him; because Jesus stands with him in the face of the tomb.

Mary anoints Jesus as king, this one in whom death is defeated, and she dries his feet with her hair for love of him.

It is love that has the victory here: the love of Jesus that weeps for his friend and stands with him even at the tomb; Jesus’ love, and Mary’s love in return. Love is stronger than death.

This is the great promise brought to birth on this day, in Lazarus who lives again and myrrh-bearing Mary. Love is stronger than death. This is the real truth about the world, the truth in which Mary joys, for which she spends and is spent: so much money, this precious oil, poured out all over Jesus’ feet. It is the truth that Judas does not know.

Love is stronger than death, in Christ Jesus our Lord. This is the truth at the end of the world, and it changes everything. It is death’s redemption, the reason we can die, the reason we can suffer, and not be afraid.

Because Jesus is there with us. For love of us he is with us at the tomb and his love calls us out.

To this also Mary witnesses, when she pours the myrrh over Jesus’ feet. The glory of the Lord, his power over all the powers of death, over all that would harm and destroy on his holy mountain; the glory of the Lord is known in his dying.

“Leave her alone,” Jesus says to Judas, who is appalled at the profligacy of Mary’s love. Leave her alone, so that she may keep it for the day of my burial. The love that reaches out to Lazarus in his tomb leads straight to the cross. Lazarus alive again points toward Jesus’ death. So that we might not die but live: Jesus’ love has the shape of the cross. Mary pours out her heart to the one who loves her even unto death.

This is the shape of the world, this love and this cross. Christ at the heart of all things—never we alone. Christ with us always, even and especially in our dying; dying now with hope; dying whose end now is life.

It is a world made beautiful again by love even where it is most terrible, even in suffering death. It is a life made by love cross-shaped.

It is in Christ the shape of our lives.

That I may know Christ, Paul says, and the power of his resurrection and the sharing in his sufferings, by becoming like him in his death (Phil 4:10): this is Paul’s hope and his greatest desire. Why would Paul embrace suffering? Because this is to embrace Christ. We are never closer to Jesus than when we are suffering and dying.

When we live a life that looks like the cross of Christ, we live Christ’s love.

When we live a life that looks like the cross of Christ, we pour out our love at his feet as Mary poured out myrrh.

And so our dying is redeemed.

For it is in Christ no longer a sign of terror and solitude and the power of sin. It is a sign of Christ’s love and God’s great grace. Behold, I am doing a new thing, says the Lord (Isa 43:19).

This last moment of our lives may now be a last tribute from our hearts to Christ.

We will die with him as he has died for us.

We will die in him as he lives in us.

We will die in love, in Christ’s love lifted up,

now finally forever into the life of God.


Mary Anointing Jesus’ Feet: modern illustration artist unknown

The Raising of Lazarus: Rembrandt van Rijn

Easter 2: Doubting Thomas and the Nail-Marks in Jesus’ Hands


“Put your finger here and see my hands, and take your hand and put it in my side; do not doubt but believe.” So Jesus says to Thomas on the 8th day of the Resurrection.

Earlier this week I saw an astonishing video: David Cameron’s Easter Message. Happy Easter, the British Prime Minister said. And then he began to talk about the good works that Christians do. “When people are homeless,” he said, “the church is there with hot meals and shelter. When people are addicted or in debt; when people are suffering or grieving, the church is there. Christians don’t just talk ‘loving thy neighbor’; they live it out, in prisons, in faith schools, in community groups.” We can be glad to say, he said, that this is a Christian country.

I was flabbergasted…and also cheered. Because he is right: this is what Christians do—or ought to do. This is our faith, the road on which we set out in the great adventure of following Jesus Christ. It is as Ephraim Radner has said (http://stmatthewsriverdale.org/01/how-the-world-has-changed/): to believe in Jesus and in his cross and in the power of his resurrection is to be people who hope and who therefore care; people for whom self-giving—what we can offer of ourselves to and for other people—is the truest thing about life. “Let your light so shine before others”: from the moment we are baptized into Christ, we are people called not just to talk about loving, but to live it.

Why? The answer is given on this day, in Thomas’ doubt and insistence and in the nail-marks on the hands of the risen Lord.

“Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails and put my finger in the mark of the nails and put my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

Thomas speaks for everyone who knows that death is real. Despite all our euphemisms, we do not “pass,” we die. Death is the dark constant at the heart of our life. It goes back to Eden. “And God commanded the man, “Of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for on the day you eat of it ‘MOT TAMUT’: you shall surely die.” Ever since Adam chose to go his own way, ever since he ate the fruit and hid from God in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, we are dust and to dust we shall return. We share in Adam’s turning away and in his death. This is what it means to be mortal.

Thomas recognizes this truth about life. In Adam all men die. It is the truth we speak every Ash Wednesday; it is the truth that is written on the forehead of the world without God. And it is the truth that is written on Good Friday on the body of the Christ.

Thomas has seen Christ crucified; he has seen in those nails the life of the world hammered to the cross. He has seen in those nails the sign and fruit of human sin and the death that it brings. Thomas knows death to be true.

This is why the nail-marks are so important. Thomas is not the great skeptic. He is the man who will go to the wall for what is true. He is not looking for easy assurances; he would have no time for the vague “spiritualities” of our day, some kind of faith-feeling floating around in a disembodied fog. He wants to see the hands and the feet because death is real and sin is real; our estrangement from God is real, and it affects us body and soul. A pilot drives a plane into a mountain: the problem is that concrete. Thomas would not say “He passed” (leaving the dead dangling in a permanently unfinished construction). Thomas says, “Christ has died.” That is the historical fact.

And if you are going to say “Christ is risen,” show me the nail-marks in his hands. Show me the nail-marks in the hands of the Christ, because this is the only hope that is true. I will believe only in the Crucified One. I will believe only if it is the Crucified One who lives, because this is the only life worth having. This is the life that is true. For if, improbably–impossibly–that very one lives on whose body the world’s death was inscribed, then everything has changed. This is the truth that ends all strife; this is the life that killeth death.

When Thomas puts his finger in the nail-marks on Jesus’ hands, he touches the turn of the ages. Taste and see that the Lord is good: taste, and touch, and see! Put your hand in my side and feel, there, your hope: because death’s dread powers have done their worst, and see, Jesus lives. Jesus lives, who died, and that changes everything.

What is it that the nail-marks say in the hands of the risen Christ? They say “Grace.” They say, “This is the love of God: that I should not leave you in your God-forsakenness; that I am with you always, even here.” They say, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son.” He gave his Son to us, for us, even unto death—our death, the life that is hammered in an agony of God-forsakeness to the cross—so that we might come, once again, to life.

Thomas puts his finger in the nail-marks and finds there the hope that is real.

He finds in the hands of the risen Lord a life that is forever marked with our death…so that our death, these mortal bodies, may be forever, now, marked with his life.

Jesus signs our bodies with his cross, and marks us as Christ’s own forever. Our death his; his life ours. Alleluia.

Through the Red Sea brought at last, we sing: in that cloud and in that sea, buried and baptized were we. Earthly night brought us light, which is ours eternally. Alleluia.

My Lord and my God, Thomas says, to the one with the nail-marks in his hands.

This is the miracle and the mystery and the joy, our great hope. God is bringing us, in Christ, out of the darkness we have made, really out of death into life. Jesus’ night—see his hands and his side—has brought us light. We who are baptized into his death live no longer for death but for life.

We live no longer for darkness but for light.

And that light is as real as the nail-marks in Jesus’ hands, as solid as a candle. This sure and certain hope running like laughter under all things, this hope that is ours, is a concrete thing. It is particular. It is known in the things we do: the hands that reach out like Christ’s, to comfort and to heal. It is known in the feet that walk with others in grief and in pain, and in hope. Always, in hope. Our daily lives, the place where our faith shines; our homes and neighborhoods the place where Jesus may be known. Let your light so shine before others.

For Christ is risen with nail-marks in his hands; Jesus lives, body and soul, and body and soul we proclaim the good news. What we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes and our hands have touched: this word of life, written on the bodies of Christ’s people as we become the body of Christ.


Caravaggio: The Incredulity  of Saint Thomas

excerpt from George Herbert: The Call (See also Common Praise Hymnal 569: Come, My Way, My Truth, My Life)

Common Praise Hymnal 226: Through the Red Sea Brought at Last

New Year’s Day: The Naming of Jesus

January 1, 2015: New Year’s Day. Or so we tend to think of it. But this is also the eighth day of Christmas: in the Anglican and Eastern Orthodox traditions, the Feast of the Naming of Jesus.

And when eight days had passed and it was time to circumcise him, he was named Jesus, the name he was given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb (Luke 2:21).

Jesus: Jeshua, God saves.

Matthew’s Gospel makes it explicit, the meaning of the name, the meaning of the child.

“You will call him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Matt 1:21).

This is the day on which the world’s salvation gets a name. And so concretely! On the eighth day after the birth of the child, according to the law of God’s people Israel, in this particular time and place, hope etched into the skin.

Jesus is named on this day child of Israel; with Israel child of God. He is named child of the promise, God’s promise to the particular people Israel. It is a promise of blessing, to Israel and through Israel to the world.

Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you…and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen 12:1-3).

When the child is circumcised on the eighth day according to the law of Israel; when he is named “YHWH saves”, God’s ancient promise of blessing to and in the people of Abraham sounds. In this people, the world shall be saved. In this child, the promise shall come to its completion.

There is perhaps nothing sweeter or more difficult than naming a child. Who will she be? What is the name that sums up all the love in the parents’ hearts, the beauty of this new life; the hope that is born with her? For she will walk a particular path, and the name that is given points to the life that will be lived, day by day.

Nicholas: Victory of the People, and the Saint who cared for the people

Sarah: princess, and mother of the people of God

Isaac: laughter, because nothing will be impossible with God.

Each name calls forth a history, the long memory of God’s promises and their outworking in these particular people, saints and mothers and ordinary people of God—promises working unexpectedly, so that even the woman who laughed at God has a part, even her laughter has a starring part (and Isaac, “he will laugh”, the only patriarch whose name is unchanged.)

What is in a name? By God’s grace, the long story of God’s people; the hope of salvation walking the earth.

It is a history and a hope that comes to a point today. “You shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”

In this child the promise that began with Sarah’s laughter and with Abraham—and the child named Isaac was born—speaks again. It is this time just as concrete as it was then. For it is in the flesh of the child that the promise is finally written.

This is the eighth day:

day of Noah, eighth from Adam, first to draw the world enmeshed in evil (“and God saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually” [Gen 6:5]) through the waters of death into a new creation;

day of circumcision;

day of resurrection.

This is the day the Lord has made, to choose a people for himself, to bring the world once more out of death into life.

This is the day the Lord has made, to name a Son who will be to us a saviour.

The salvation of God is written in the flesh of his Son.

There is a mystery in this feast day: that God should be so close, even in a child; that hope should touch us so closely, even in our flesh. For the blood of the child on the eighth day is a pointer, the early church said. In it the cross is known, and the blood that will wash the world once again.

Jesus himself hears the echo of his life’s beginning in his life’s end. This is my blood, he says at that last supper with his disciples, “my blood of the covenant that is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matt 26:28). “You will call his name Jesus,” the angel says at the child’s birth, “for he will save his people from their sins.”

This is the day the Lord has made, on which hope receives its name. On this eighth day the blood poured out, figuring already another eighth day and a world named again God’s own.

Fra Angelico sees both the figural aspect of this day, the hope to which it points, and how present it is; how real, how everyday. Here are Mary and Joseph, Mary so young; Joseph the peasant that he is, in rough robes. He holds the baby’s feet, and his face is a study in mixed emotions. Tenderness is there, but so too is pain. It is a father’s face. The child throws up his arms, as any child would: the moment is real. But it is also rich. For in the child’s body is the shape of the cross, and in his raised arms a blessing.

I saw last night just a bit of the party at Times Square right after midnight. Such jubilation, that the world goes on, that we have each of us reached yet again a point of new beginning. The instinct is right: we look to the time of the world’s new life; we push on this night toward birth. There is a victory in the turning-over of the times, and we shall rejoice in it.

But the place of victory is not Times Square and it does not come with champagne and shouting.

It comes in a small child at Bethlehem, and in the shepherds who alone see him. It comes in Joseph and Mary, in their joy and in the sword that will pierce their hearts also. It comes at the name of Jesus, given to us this day. At the name of Jesus every knee will bow, and every tongue confess, and the world will find its new year.