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