Saturday, March 6, 2010

Fifth Sunday in Lent Year C

Fifth Sunday in Lent C
(Revised Common Lectionary)

Isaiah 43:16-21; Psalm 126; Philippians 3:4b-14; John 12:1-8

Using the same verb for "create" as is used in Genesis for the creation of the world, the book of Isaiah now uses it to remind God's people that their identity is due to the "creation" of Israel, with all that sacred relationship has entailed to this point.  More explicitly he alludes to the paradigmatic act of salvation in that relationship with the Lord "who makes a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters...."  He continues, however,  with a bold innovation.  As mighty as that past act of salvation was for the people of God, get ready for a "new thing" for "my chosen people..." says the Lord!  Prepare yourself for a new exodus!

 The psalmist celebrates the fact that the Lord has/will restore the well-being of the Lord's people.  Robert Alter notes that the verbs translated "restores," "dream", "laugh" in this psalm do not make a distinction between past, present and future tenses in Hebrew, (The Book of Psalms, p. 447).  The image of restoration the psalmist uses is easily appreciated: spring showers that fill parched water-beds after a brutal winter.  That image is followed by an invocation of the joy/satisfaction that come at harvest after a long growing season which began in labor and some anxiety  and "tears." 

Paul reviews his personal credentials and history as a zealous religionist for the traditions into which he has been born and raised.  However, he writes, now "I regard them all as rubbish, in order that I might gain Christ and be found in him...."  He has made a new choice that entails a complete reversal in his life which has one, consuming attraction: "the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I might attain the resurrection of the dead."  As he writes this, he is just at the beginning of this new stage in his life, "forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead...."

In John's narrative, Jesus' public life of healing and teaching began with a party--  a wedding reception in Cana-- and now begins its conclusion with a dinner party among dear friends in Bethany, just outside Jerusalem.  Having raised Lazarus from the dead (11:1-44) in the week before the beginning of Passover, Jesus and the disciples join his friend and his two sisters, Martha and Mary.  While Martha serves dinner, Mary "took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard" with which she "anoints" the head and feet of Jesus, (invoking part of the ritual for the enthronement of a king as well as preparation for burial of the dead, we can/should infer).   The home is full of the powerfully sweet fragrance, John emphasizes.  But the happy mood is shattered by the protest of Judas who insists that this extravagance is a waste of money.  He appraises the value of the perfume and says it could have gone to the poor.  (John says his interest is not the poor but the size of the disciples' pooled assets, from which he is pilfering.)  Jesus tells Judas not to criticize what Mary has done.  Her act of extravagance is appropriate:  "You will always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me."

The bold innovation in the book of Isaiah is still remarkable.  The writer invokes God's past acts of salvation not with the intention of recalling history but as an announcement to get ready for a new exodus!  Using verbs that are not locked into past, present or future tenses as in English usage, the psalmist's paean to new life can describe the past but just as accurately our present and our future.  On this last Sunday before that week the church calls "holy," these are timely reminders that we are about to begin not just some recollections of sacred history, but the possibility something new, transformative happening; a new exodus!

Six days before that fateful week in John's narrative,  he writes about an incident that reminds us that some of the most important things in our lives come from extravagance, excess, passion, love.  We already know about these times that alter our lives.  When we fall in love, or in the climax of passionate love-making that results in due time in a new birth, or a consuming commitment to a cause, a movement.  These moments when love takes over, although rare and not without risk, become what suddenly and surely turn our lives in wholly new directions.  

In his essay "Faith and Reason," Jean-Luc Marion considers what he calls this "logic of love" or this "great reason."  Citing key passages from John's gospel, Marion writes:  "The love revealed by the Logos, is deployed as a logos, hence as a [kind of] rationality."  "...Christ had shown that... love has its reason, a forceful and original, simple reason, which sees and says what common reason is missing...."  "But Christ has shown not only the logic of love, he has demonstrated and proven it in facts and acts by his passion and resurrection."  (The Visible and the Revealed, p. 152)

When someone can look back over a long, committed relationship and say that 'falling in love' with that person was the 'smartest' thing I ever did, or look at a child and marvel at a life begun in a moment of passionate love-making we understand the vital importance of this "logic of love"  in our lives.  This is just such a moment in the life of Mary that John describes.  Excessive, extravagant, even wasteful in the eyes of some, such moments define us, determine us, express us, initiate our relationships and inaugurate our communities.   The church of Christ begins next Sunday its annual walk in real time through that week which puts on full display the "logic of love" like no other.  We do not get ready for an historic re-enactment, but for the possibility of something new, a new exodus; love's response to Love!