Sunday, March 13, 2016

Lent 5 C - Mar 13, 2016

Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
Br. Peter Rostron, OHC
Lent 5 C - Sunday, March 13, 2016

Isaiah 43:16-21
Philippians 3:4b-14
John 12:1-8

Anointing Jesus' feet
In today’s gospel reading, John brings us in to a dinner hosted by Jesus’s friends, Martha, Mary, and Lazarus. There may have been others present, but John focuses on just the three hosts and Judas, and their interactions with Jesus. The tone of the story is quite intimate. Mary, in letting her hair down, is breaking a social norm that women in public should keep their hair up; she is doing something she would only do in the presence of family or close friends. And Jesus’s response to Judas - “Leave her alone” - is raw and emotional. The story is given added richness by being set just before Jesus’s final entry into Jerusalem and his crucifixion. Mary anointing Jesus’s feet evokes the foot washing Jesus will soon offer his disciples. Mary and Martha as servers at the table hints at roles that will develop in the church around the offering of Holy Communion. The story thus has echoes of both the Last Supper and the Eucharist. And the fragrance of the precious oil filling the house is suggestive of the Holy Spirit that soon would breathe life into the nascent Church, and which resonates even to this very moment in the incense that fills this church.

So, John has created for us a very compelling image of Christian community that was to come. He gives us four specific portraits, four prototypes in a sense, of how a member of the Christian community might relate to Jesus. Lazarus just days earlier had lost his life and was raised from the dead by Jesus. He has experienced the resurrection that awaits each of us as faithful Christians. He has the most intimate possible relationship with Christ and is living with the full realization of what it means to be a member of Christ’s body. Then there is Martha, a servant, practical, faithful, who values order and the fulfillment of obligations. We met her in Luke’s gospel as the dutiful one who was most concerned that her home was clean and orderly and that her guests were cared for, and in this story we are told simply that she served. This is an admirable role, one that we see many places in the Bible, such as with Peter’s mother-in-law, who, upon being healed, immediately began to serve. It is certainly not a bad role, but by itself it is not a fulfilling one. There is a missing piece, and that is what we see in Mary, who sets aside all distractions and obligations in order to be fully present to Jesus. She is risk-taking, boundary-pushing, someone we might wish to be like. She alone recognizes and reveres the divinity of Jesus. And finally, there is Judas, sinful, separated from God, who will betray Jesus, who most values wealth and position and safety within the power structure of his day. He is blind to the deep significance of the precious oil and instead sees only an opportunity for selfish gain.

As I read and re-read this story, I found myself wondering, Who am I at this intimate table? Who are you? Am I more like Martha, who principally values her duty and her service in community? Or like Mary, in her extravagant devotion to, and love for, Jesus, who is willing to use rather than cling to the valuable perfume? And what about Judas? His extreme actions make him easy to vilify and dismiss, but all of us are fully capable of feelings of greed or of committing an act of betrayal. And at the opposite extreme we have Lazarus, whom we can only wait with patience and faith to be like. Obviously, none of us is exactly like any of these four. We are each our own unique person. So it might be worthwhile instead to think of how we each could fall somewhere on a scale between Judas at one end and Lazarus at the other. A new question, echoing Paul’s words, might be, “To what extent am I willing and able to suffer the loss of all things in order to know Christ?” Judas is not willing to give up anything; in fact he would rather destroy in order to hold on to what he has and gain even more. Martha - reluctantly perhaps - gives up things she might enjoy or that might be right for her in order to care for others. Mary willingly sets aside all things in order to simply be with Jesus. And Lazarus, at the far end of the spectrum, beckons us toward the reward of resurrection in Christ that can only come from letting go of everything, including one’s own life.

What Lazarus experienced is ultimately what Paul is yearning for. “I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him… I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection.” Paul and Lazarus are on to something, but what they have experienced or are seeking strikes me as quite beyond my reach. Perhaps we could posit a few markers, in the form of questions, that might be helpful in locating ourselves on the scale I proposed and that would guide us in the direction of Lazarus and Paul. “To what extent am I able to give up my own will, or let go of my own ego, or humble myself, in order to better know Christ and be Christ in the world?” “What spiritual practices can help me on my journey?” “What acts of compassion can I offer to those in need?” “What material stance can I take in the world that promotes greater respect for the poor and disenfranchised, and for the Earth?” There are likely many other questions you could come up with that might be helpful. And there are certainly many different choices of lifestyle and attitude that will either promote, or hinder, one’s movement on this scale toward fullness in Christ.

For instance, I have chosen to live in a monastery. Yet, I have found that living in a monastery does not magically eliminate all the problems and temptations of everyday life. I still cling to some of the same things or ways of being as I did before. Certain behaviors, of my own or of others, still bug me. It turns out that a commitment to let go and to turn one’s will over to Christ is no easier here than anyplace else. One thing I do have here is a space that is particularly conducive to prayer, that invites a contemplative attitude, and that offers scripture read and chanted multiple times each day, all of which are valuable components of a life that moves toward Christ. In fact, it was not long after I first arrived at the monastery that I heard today’s passage from Paul’s letter to the Philippians read by Br. Bernard at Matins. I remember it vividly. I left and sat in my cell in tears afterward. This passage so moved me that I later chose it as the New Testament reading at my First Profession. It is why I came here, to attempt to suffer the loss of all things in order to live fully into the love of Jesus Christ. But, it hasn’t happened yet, and I understand more clearly as time goes on that it will take a lifetime of work here, just as it would outside the monastery. All of you and all of the brothers here are on the same journey - the circumstances are just a little different. Martha, Mary, Judas, Lazarus, and Paul were on the same journey - the circumstances were just a little different. All of our individual circumstances are unique. Still, no matter where you live, or who you are, or how far along your are on your journey, you can immerse yourself in scripture, have a rich prayer life, and live with a contemplative attitude. You can be attentive to answering key questions that will help you locate yourself along the way. And you can ponder how Martha, Mary, Judas, and Lazarus sat with Jesus.

So, let us keep making our way closer to Christ. Let us learn from each other and from Jesus’s friends - from what we and they have done well, and from where we and they have gone astray. And, like Paul, let us press on to know Christ and the power of his resurrection.

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