There is a mixture of hope and loss in the readings for tomorrow, Passion Sunday. The gospel reading takes us to Bethany and the home of Lazarus "whom he (Jesus) had raised from the dead" but the main focus is on the action of Mary who "took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus' feet, and wiped them with her hair."
Judas Iscariot claims that it is wasteful, but Jesus tells him to leave her alone; that it had been bought for the day of his burial. The cross is already in sight.
The journey of Jesus to the cross is one of deepening loss – an experience familiar to anyone who has sat by a loved one in their final days. No matter how close and supportive we want to be to that person, they must ultimately journey alone.
It was the same in the last days of the earthly life of Jesus who lost everything – supporters, friends and of course his dignity and his life.
It has even been suggested that in that cry from the cross “My God My God, why have you forsaken me” he had momentarily lost his faith. There is comfort in that possibility for our too often misgivings.
The German/Canadian writer Eckhart Tolle suggests that we discover our true identities when we come to terms with loss: "Possessions, the work you do, social status and recognition, physical appearance, special abilities, relationships, personal and family history . . . none of these is you".
He insists that we must relinquish all these things eventually: “Death is a stripping away of all that is not you. The secret of life is to die before you die – and find that there is no death.”
In tomorrow’s Epistle reading from Philippians, Paul makes a similar point by disowning his lineage and personal achievements: “For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ . . .”
Alexander Solzhenitsyn who suffered imprisonment under the Stalinist regime makes an interesting point in his novel The First Circle in which prison inmates discuss their seemingly hopeless plight. One of them, (Bobynin) confronts a security guard and tells him that there is a deeper reality, full of promise, beyond the bleak circumstances of the present moment. "You make a mistake, chief," he says. "You have taken everything away from me. A man from whom you have taken everything is no longer in your power. He is free all over again."
St Paul said something similar: “And though we own nothing, everything is ours . . . As sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as needy, yet enriching many; as having nothing, and possessing all things”.
This sits well with the Christian understanding of the death of Jesus who was betrayed, tortured, humiliated and, in the eyes of the world, finished off.
His death of course was a tragedy, a disgrace, but out of it came hope for the broken world we face today: hope that we can find reconciliation and forgiveness because that is God’s desire for the world.
Christianity does not in any way seek to diminish our losses. The pain and the grief are real and cannot be dismissed. The small circle of grieving family and friends around the cross of Jesus is an acknowledgment of that reality.
But Christianity insists that loss is not the final word. The prophet Isaiah explains why in tomorrow’s reading: “Do not remember the former things or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert . . . for I give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert, to give drink to my chosen people.”
In other words, God makes a way out of no way; water will be provided in deserts and life will be found in unexpected places.