1 Monday The house was filled…
Isaiah 42.1-9, Hebrews 9.11-15, John 12. 1-11
1. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume
Each day of Holy week is a lesson in the resurrection. The resurrection spells itself out to us as the cross. We learn the glory of God and about our place in this glory – which means the resurrection. We learn about the resurrection through the passion of Christ. The passion of Christ is the glory of God for us.
The readings set by the Lectionary of the Church of England for today are from Isaiah, Hebrews and John. Isaiah 42 – ‘Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights’. Hebrews 9 – ‘Christ came as a high priest of the good things that have come, through the greater and perfect tent’. John 12 – ‘Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.
The risen Christ – who is always risen, always holy – has been given to us. He reveals himself to us in this hidden way. He subjects himself to us. He starts to reveal himself and if we like what is shown to us and ask for more, we receive man, but if we don’t like or want it, it is not forced on us, and we do not have to know any more about it. Then the world either remains a puzzle to us, or perhaps it even makes perfect sense to us, without God. The glory that is everywhere, is nowhere visible and does not interrupt us in any way, but rather enables us to live without any knowledge of it.
God makes himself as inconspicuous as a servant. He has submitted himself to us. To demonstrate this Jesus is baptised by John. He hands himself over again, and puts himself in our hands and out control. More strange still, Christ has made himself our servant. While we sit at the feast, he stands behind our chair, like a good servant, ready to help us in any way with whatever is good and to remove whatever we cannot cope with. Let us start with John, and say something about this house and the perfume that fills it.
Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. John 12. 1-11
This anointing is the form Mary’s praying takes. Mary is praying without making any requests. She simply presents herself to the Lord, without word. In the same way we do not know what to say, but the Spirit prays for us from within us. She washes his feet and anoints them with this nard so the perfume fills the house. ‘Your prayer as been heard’, Jesus says on another occasion. The perfume is the prayers of the saints (Revelation 5.8). It rises up from the worship of the Church. ‘We are the aroma of Christ to God… a fragrance from life to life. Through us God spreads in every place the fragrance that comes from knowing Christ’ (2 Corinthians 2.14-16).
2. The glory of God
The whole earth is full of his glory (Isaiah 6.3). It fills the temple. ‘We have seen his glory because the Word became flesh and lived among us (John 1.14) The assembly gathered together to praise God, is this temple. Their praise will fill the world, until finally the whole world will become this temple. The glory of the Lord rested upon the camp day and night.
Glory is another word for public knowledge or reputation, the extent to which knowledge of him has spread. It does not add anything to God that we know who he is. But it does add something to us. Knowledge of God is access to God, the ability to call him to come to our aid. God has no need of us. It does not add anything to him that we know his name and that we are therefore able to call for his support, or even become aware of his existence. That we know of God in however an attenuated way is a benefit for us, though perhaps a liability for him.
Nevertheless God considers us to be his glory. He is pleased to know us. He is ready to know us and decided to know us, and by this decision we have been brought into being. We are the people he has worked for and which he is still now labouring for, and this is the creation he works for. He works in this creation like a labourer. He stands behind us, enabling us to do all that we are able.
The whole earth is filled with glory of God, because it reflects him and he recognises it as a beautiful piece of work. The most extraordinary piece in it is ourselves. The chief glory of creation is Man. Man is that part of creation that can freely turn round to regard creation, assess it, and if he wishes, can decide that it is good. He is that part of creation that can give thanks for its making. This is the freedom of Man.
God has made the world, but his glory is hidden in it. It is not obvious to us that this place is full of the glory of God. Creation waits impatiently and groans in the pains of labour, and not only the creation, but we too groan inwardly while we wait for our redemption. (Romans 8.19-23 ). It is our job to lead this lament, and to say the world is not comfortable or settled, but in pain because what is coming to birth has not yet arrived.
God is the chief lover of man. He considers man is chief work and wonder. We cannot love ourselves more than he loves us, and all our self-love is as nothing before the real and true love of God for us. God has invited us to watch the process of creation, and be astonished and delighted, just like Wisdom herself. ‘I was beside him, like a master worker; and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the human race’ (Proverbs 8.22-31). We are invited to become both spectator and fellow-worker with God, and so in a true sense to be a little god within creation. Through the whole array of our natural sciences bring out our proper wonder at creation. We can happily bring things from creation to work them and add our artistry to them and to show them to God, and expresses our wonder at them. Our chief works of art are – one another.
God seeks us. It is not for his sake that he does so for God has no needs and so no designs on us. Though every master and every creature has reasons of its own, and is driven by its own needs, God does not source his identity from us and so can truly let us be ourselves. Because he is truly other, he is able to give us the recognition that establishes us.
3. The prayers of the saints
Mary is praying. She doesn’t ask for anything. She simply presents herself to the Lord, without word. Apparently, even when we don’t ask for anything, our thoughts and needs rise from us like some needy column of voices, pleading to be given what they need. We are needy. We are making pleas even when we don’t know we are doing so.
We may ask for what we want. The Church created by the resurrection is full of the prayer and worship that come from its confidence that it is heard. The prayers and petitions of Christians don’t come from any sense of victimhood or resentment. We don’t think we have been badly done by. We speak up for those who either do not speak up for themselves or who only know the culture of blame and resentment, and who are content to have someone to blame so that they don’t can be spared responsibility. But we are embarked on an apprenticeship in love, and which means also in suffering. We protest, but we do so in hope, and this hope allows us to expect more from every other human than they are yet ready to give.
For God has not simply spoken, but having spoken, listens and waits for the world to answer. He intends that it should answer back and so join him in conversation. He intends that each human creature should really hear and receive each other human creature. God intends that we should hear one another and respond to the prayers and requests that we make of one another. We will learn how to hear and so we will not be deaf to one another. In our intercessions we are learning to hear the world, that is to pick up the many voices, and we are learning to represent and speak up for those who do not get any other hearing. We amplify the voices of those not heard by any one else. It is our job to make them no longer voiceless. We are to be their voices.
In our service we give God this adoration. We cannot divest the Church of its adoration and praise of God. We may not strip away this worship in order to find the deeper truth of its ethic beneath. Words cannot be taken away from the Church to reveal acts. And we cannot divest the social works of the Church from its words, for words and acts cannot be separated in Christ who is the Word-and-Act of God.
Our service is not social work. It is love, it is caritas – charity or care, which we have received from God, and which overflows from him through us, outwards. The consequence of this love is that we see those around us as gifts of God, as themselves the love of God to us. We respond to them with thanks to God and we thank them for every opportunity to exercise this love. But this love does not have an agenda. We are not social workers. We are not co-opted by public money into supplying various forms of provision: this would turn us into an arm of government. This love is not aimed to increasing anyone economic efficiency, or to reduce the amount anyone is a burden. We insist that we are burdens on one another. We are not involved in community work in the hope that our deeds will allow us to speak about the gospel. We do not believe that acts must come before words, for we do not believe that words and acts are separable. Christ is Word and act united and inseparable, and we are part of his act and word for the world. We have his permission to speak, so we do not need any other licence to do so.
The Church is the event in which God hears man and God is heard by man. It is the community brought into being by this conversation. The Church is a foretaste of the life and freedom that God intends for the world as whole. The Church engages the world in conversation, to tell the world that it is loved, and addressed and heard by God. Christians listen to and intercede for the world, passing the complaints and requests they hear on to God, bringing to the attention of rulers to the situation of their people. The Church is this vocal people, charged with speaking up and interceding for the rest of the world.
4. The house
Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him;… I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations,
God has made a house for man. And God is making man the house in which he dwells. Where may he be found? ‘Where are you staying?’, the disciples ask Jesus (John 1.38). Where is God? How can we find him? How may we access him and address him? The dwelling of God is with man. The Lord promises to make himself available and to receive us. He will ‘tabernacle’ with us, pitch his tent with us. ‘Shall I build you a tabernacle’ says Peter when Jesus’ transfiguration tells him that he has a king on his hands. The answer is ‘You will not build me a house – but I will build you a house’ (2 Samuel 7). Yet God will stay with us, and we will be staying with God. He will be our house and our resting place.
Where does God dwell? Where is he staying? He is camping out with us. Jesus tells Zacchaeus ‘Today, I shall be staying at your house’ (Luke 19.5). Zacchaeus will be Jesus’ address, so our way to Jesus will be via Zaccheus, and via all the others we meet in the Gospels. So where shall we find him? We shall find him by the witness of the Church. The throne of Christ is the events of the incarnation, and we can identify him only through them, but he can access us and dwell with us in every place and time. The house and household in which Christ dwells is the household made up of these apostles. They are the answer to the question, ‘Lord, where are you staying?’
It is of course always ‘my Father’s house’ (Luke 2.49) that defines him, for he sits at the right hand of the Father (psalm 110). First he identifies himself with the apostles and that means that he is available to us through the Scriptures, which are the records the apostles have given us. But he makes himself known when these scriptures are read in public by the Church – and so also in the worship of the Church. But the Son is the known God is the unknown God making himself known to us when we gather together in worship of him. He has promised to be there, to hold audience, wherever we meet together.
It is not obvious that the house is full of the glory of God. This glory is for us to see and share, by faith, which is to say, in freedom – or to decline. It is not obvious that this world of God’s creating is beautiful, for it appears as the very opposite of beautiful. Why is that? This is because it is not a finished object, polished and set in front of us, which we can admire and do no more. It is a work in progress and a work which is given to us to do. God believes that we can fashion the world with him. He waits for us to take part. And he does this even though it may mean that we muck it up, and creation takes a step backwards, and even that we may muck it up many times, and creation may go round in circles. For the chief glory of man, who is the chief glory of creation, is that he is free.
Christ is the whole human, the universal human-to-human mediator, who can hear and receive all other humans. God asks a question of us with this man. The question to us is whether we are determined to be less than this, or whether we too are ready to receive through him the whole human race and created order as the gifts of God. Man is a mystery – God’s mystery – so he cannot be controlled or closed down on. It is not just man’s present, defined as it is by the present limits of man’s imagination, but man’s future that God has at heart here. God’s interest is in man’s freedom. God is the guardian of the man – he does not let man give it away or exchange it for anything less demanding. Yet he does not swamp us or impose himself on us. So Christ is here in this disguised form. He disguised so that our freedom to receive this life from him, or not to receive it, is entirely ours.
Christ came as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation). He entered once for all into the Holy Place, not with the blood of goats and calves, but with his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption. Hebrews 9.11-15
All this flesh and created stuff which we are concerned with is the means of our meeting and staying with God. It is eternity that makes this time and these material bodies for us, as the means by which we can be with one another and with him. Time and materiality do not prevent us from meeting God and we do not need to wait until it has passed away, for all heaven produces this material creation in which we can be together. All the processes of growing and aging, all our embarrassment at our bodies and our impatience with other people’s bodies, their needs and their peculiarities, are crucial to our education in love. For us all the material sacraments and the other Christians we are faced with, are the means by which we may grow up into his stature, and learn to show our delight in him and one another. All creation is of use in sanctifying us – all blood and flesh, all working and shaping and consuming and marvelling and enjoying belong to his glory. ‘Let everything that has breath, praise the Lord.’ Christ is the truth of our created materiality and of our human nature and our calling into the communion of God.
And Christ is being divested by us this week of this materiality, and when we have stripped him and scourged him, taken away his breath and laid him in the tomb, he will remain and be revealed for us as the truth of us that God has prepared for us. We can take away from him everything that we think belongs to us – even life itself, as far as we are in control of it, and there is he is entirely God, entirely ours and entirely Lord for us. He will be dressed and surrounded in the reputation of God and the praise and prayers of redeemed creation, and he will share that glory with us.
6. On our way to Easter
We are on our way to Easter. On Easter morning we will say that ‘Christ is risen’. Easter is the moment when the undying and indestructible life that God has extended to us makes itself apparent. God has set out to bring us into relationship first with himself and then with all other human beings. When we say ‘Christ is risen’ we are pointing to the coming resurrection of all creation in him and so we are pointing to our own resurrection, which is the resurrection that is of real interest to us.
When we say that ‘Christ has risen’, we mean that one of us has finally discovered what it is to be a human being. He has grown up into the status of interlocutor of God. God has decided that all human beings are wonderful and committed himself to them, all of them, without limit. One of us has learned to love. In doing so he has upped the definition of humankind: to be human now means not just to be a member of this species, but to be in a free relationship of love with God and with every member of creation – it is others that complete our status as humans.
In this talk I have said that the world is filled with the glory of God, but for us this glory is hidden. We have to learn to see it and we are also becoming part of this glory. I have said that Christ prays to the Father, and their conversation is never interrupted. Because Christ prays, we may pray to God. Every day of Holy Week is an unfurling of the resurrection.