Back in November of 2013, nearing the end of my sabbatical, I was in Jerusalem. Because I was relatively close to the walled Old City of Jerusalem, I walked there almost every day of the 2 weeks I had on my own before joining a Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Centre tour. One of my favourite places near the Old City was the Mount of Olives. I spent a lot of time walking up and down and around the Mount of Olives.
One of the last few days on my own before joining the Sabeel tour, I decided to walk the Via Dolorosa—the way of sorrow that Jesus is traditionally thought to have walked from the praetorium to Golgotha, the Place of the Skull, where Jesus was crucified. I started from the top of the Mount of Olives. Bethany was a little way away and complicated to get to because it is in Palestine. Palestinians today cannot do the Palm Sunday parade from Bethany to Jerusalem; they could until a few years ago. In Arabic, the community pf Bethany is called Al-Eizariya (which means place of Lazarus). So, I walked on my own Palm Sunday parade, down the Mount of Olives and into the Old City. Unfortunately, the gate that Jesus would have entered the city through, had been sealed many years ago. So, I went around the wall to enter through the Damascus Gate. And then I followed the Via Dolorosa. This was the traditional route Jesus took. There is an alternative Place of the Skull—Golgotha—that is just outside the Old City and is called the Garden Tomb, which seemed a more appropriate place than what is now The Church of the Holy Sepulcher that houses both the tomb in which Jesus was buried and the Place of the Skull.
As I think back on that experience, I think that the terms meaningful and challenging are appropriate; after all, they are also appropriate for our understanding of Jesus’ life and ministry. Jesus provided meaning to people who were seeking a deeper connection to God, to kindred, to the earth; Jesus provided meaning to people seeking to be free of the Roman occupiers, free of the constrictions of who was welcomed into community and who was not. Or just simply seeking a deeper meaning to life.
Jesus also challenged us to think more deeply about our humanity and our connection to others and to the earth. Jesus challenged us to think critically about our own egos (to use modern language) and how our self-centredness gets in the way of God’s Kin-Dom. Jesus challenged us to set aside our biases and preconceived notions of what is right to rethink from a place of love and compassion what justice is. Jesus challenged the people then, and all of us now, about how to live more fully the gift of hope.
Mark is the Gospel we are following this year, and he has conveniently laid out the week that followed the Palm Parade into Jerusalem. On Tuesday, Mark tells us that Jesus spent a day teaching and engaging in debates; Wednesday was the extravagant love of an unnamed woman anointing him. Thursday, we are told by Mark, was about preparations for Passover, the Last Supper, prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, being arrested, and a trial before the Jewish Council. On Friday, Jesus was taken to Pilate, condemned, crucified, and buried. On Saturday, there was silence, nothing. And then Sunday and the tomb.
Jesus entered Jerusalem with a great sense of hope, I believe. And those who greeted and accompanied him also engaged in this hope. They were hopeful about the promised Kin-Dom of God that Jesus proclaimed. I’m not sure that anyone anticipated the parade eventually ending in crucifixion and death.
For me, the remarkable event in that week we call Holy Week was the anointing of Jesus back in Bethany by an unnamed woman. Theologians have written books about this woman, the most famous being In Memory of Her by Elizabeth Schussler-Fiorenza. The woman was engaged in slave work to anoint dinner guests. But what Jesus saw in this woman was someone who seemed to understand him much more than those who’d spent a lot of time with him. In taking her part, Jesus challenged the male dominance of his hosts and his disciples. What Jesus also saw in the woman’s gesture of love was a prophetic action.
What this anonymous woman has done is to reorient us to love; in the midst of this Holy Week, full of sorrow and violence and disappointment, is love in the loving sacrifice of someone who grasped intuitively what it meant to go beyond boundaries in the prophetic depiction of God’s Kin-Dom—all that Jesus had been talking about. In the midst of this dark and difficult week is this remarkable story of someone who expresses the kind of love that is what God has been about from the beginning of time—a self-emptying (to use Paul’s quote), anointing love of hope and extravagant joy.
What this woman has inspired for me is my own discipleship of meaning and challenge. How do I use my capabilities, my weaknesses and failures even, my resources, my very life as an extravagant gift of love in this world? Jesus did this for those who followed him and has done for us over the centuries. How do we take that blessing and grace into our daily lives, confront our self-centredness, and carry our crosses into the promised Kin-Dom of hope?
Part of the answer is that we don’t gloss over the challenges we face in our lives; we meet them head-on with hope and love. We don’t even gloss over the deaths we experience in our living because, as Jesus taught again and again, from death comes new life. We hold onto that transformational love in living our lives and we open ourselves to that extravagant gift of love embodied in Jesus and in the woman whose story was told, and we root our lives in it, new seedlings in the Easter Garden! Amen.