Here is Bishop Stephen's Lent 6 Reflection. This is Bishop Stephen’s final Reflection in the current series, as we prepare to enter Holy Week.
Lent Reflections 6
This is my final reflection as we prepare to enter Holy Week. These bring together ideas expressed previously for another audience. I believe that they are still relevant and relate to Mark Chapter 14.
A television advert for perfume presents a beautiful young woman in the style of a modern Marilyn Munro. She tells us that she does all her own stunts, even making love. We are meant to see her as an enchantress made more alluring by the scent. The gospel has a different take on the place of perfume.
The unnamed woman at Bethany does not wear the scent herself. She enters the house to anoint Jesus with expensive perfume. We are back in Bethlehem where wise men brought gold, frankincense and myrrh to the infant king. We recall the anointing of Aaron the priest and of David the king. The woman anoints our Priest and our King for burial. This is no morbid ritual but rather the making of supper into a true celebration. The fragrance of the perfume fills the house, underlying the fullness of Christ’s self-offering.
The poor will always be with us in Jesus; the poor who will always be the recipients of God’s extravagant love. The woman’s anonymity makes her our forebear. We do not need to know the names of the countless poor and outcast who have served Jesus with the fragrance of their offering, only that we are numbered among them.
In Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons, originally a 1954 radio play for the BBC, we are invited to explore the integrity and courage of Sir Thomas More, Henry VIII’s Lord Chancellor, who could not in conscience accept the King’s divorce from Katherine of Aragon and his break from Rome.
Sir Thomas is portrayed as a loving family man who runs a generous and open household. He loves the law and his king, but he loves God and his hold on what it true above all else. He knows that his conscience puts him on a collision course with power, as represented by his nemesis, Thomas Cromwell.
More would like to live and uses the protection of the law to forestall his enemies; but he is betrayed by someone weak whom he considered a friend, Richard Rich, who perjures himself to bring about More’s downfall.
Jesus knows that he will be betrayed by a friend at a depth which is nothing like paid false witnesses whom no one believes at his trial. This betrayal by Judas will have consequences beyond the personal and lead to the un-making of friendship and the spread of betrayal to Peter.
Our continuing sin is false witness to Jesus’ gospel of love. Nonetheless, he continues to gather us at his table to forgive us and feed us. The Eucharist is not a reward for good behaviour; it is the transforming place for those praying to be reliable witnesses.
Pilgrims flock to the olive grove full of gnarled and ancient trees on the Mount of Olives which is the site of the Garden of Gethsemane, the garden of the olive press. Next to it is the modern Church of the Agony. In the 1973 movie version of Jesus Christ Superstar we are treated to a vivid portrayal of Jesus in the Garden, experiencing the full press of agony. The disciples are literally in an untidy pile, asleep. The waking reality of fear and danger is too much for them, so their unconscious draws them into protective oblivion. Jesus, however, moves among the real and figurative rocks and hard places as he contends with the fact of his imminent suffering and death.
When we read that Jesus sweated blood we can only imagine the anguish that he feels; but the Jesus of the movie sings I Only Want to Say. This is the very human Jesus who is worn out and alone, contending with futility while still engaged in dialogue with his heavenly Father. Every skilled interrogator of the innocent seeks to seed doubt and futility in the mind of the innocent prisoner.
This is the anguish of Jesus which produces tears of blood. We know that he did not change his mind. He trusted and was obedient to the Father’s will. No one but the Son of God going to the cross makes meaning out of meaninglessness.
On 4th August, 1944, Anne Frank and her family were betrayed in their hiding place within her father’s former warehouse office. We are not certain who betrayed them; but there must have been a tip-off to the Gestapo. The Franks and the other Jews hiding with them had been there for the two years in which Anne recorded her life in her Diary. The betrayer is likely to be someone who knew them all that time, rather like those who witnessed Jesus teaching in the Temple and who did nothing.
Her arrest, like that of Jesus, led to torture, separation and death, in her case in Bergen-Belsen in 1945. The only survivor of the whole family was Anne’s father, Oscar Frank. Males and females were separated at the first camp and Oscar never got over the look in the eyes of Margot, his elder daughter, as they saw each other for the last time.
Anne wrote in her Diary, “How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world”. Anne encouraged others in the camp. She continued to live by her own words: “Everyone has inside of him a piece of good news. The good news is that you don't know how great you can be! How much you can love! What you can accomplish! And what your potential is!” Jesus was to die for this. No one knew at that time that her Diary had survived her arrest and death. Everything seemed empty. Jesus knows that this is prophecy fulfilled; but the disciples fled, preferring to cower rather than look to new creation.
The American poet, Elizabeth Bishop, was a pacifist. She wrote a powerful anti-war poem in 1940, entitled Roosters. She writes about hens rustling around, proud of their fighting cocks. She is also very aware that the rooster is also a symbol of betrayal and crucifixion, another form of violence.
Peter is the disciple who first declares Jesus’s identity as the Messiah, the Son of the living God. He is a big-hearted, intuitive enthusiast. He does not understand what he has said, really. He objects to all Jesus’s references to his suffering. The gap between intuition and wisdom lead to this inconstancy. Peter’s betrayal could not be more dreadful in the light of his declaration that he would never desert Jesus. Yet, in spite of his claims to courage, he was human. The rooster stands for Peter’s not having superhuman resolve and, paradoxically, it is this humanity that led Jesus to forgive him, and to forgive us all: Peter’s ‘dreadful rooster come to mean forgiveness’.
This is all in the future, however. Peter is still cast as the brassy cockscomb who makes the grating noise of betrayal which gets under our skin because it could be, has been us. Like the strutting cock, Peter looks ready for a fight but his courage ends up on the dung heap like the failed rooster. Peter is blown like the weathervane and spins into sadness.
Judas is a plausible disciple, concerned to serve the poor from the common purse; but he is possessed of his own ideas and ambitions for which Jesus has to be sacrificed, only to discover that all love and meaning are destroyed for him. Shakespeare’s tragic figures often have a decisive fault which brings about their ruin, like ambition or a refusal to bend to the will of others.
In our society it is tempting to be over-interested in the psyche of the villain. Among the flaws of Martin Scorsese’s film, The Last Temptation of Christ, is its greater interest in the motives of Judas than in the call of Christ. Judas is not a tragic figure who somehow claims a stake in the tragedy as well as the victory of the cross.
He is the person who is revealed to the one who has a howling wilderness with him, succumbing to the temptations which Jesus resisted and finding them so completely false that he despairs. His ‘reward’ pays for a place of death. His suicide is a dead end and a determined refusal to take responsibility for his own actions. Here is a cul-de-sac in contrast to the open road from the cross, from which Christ wins life for all by taking responsibility for the cost of the actions of all.
I pray that you will have a joyful Holy Week, coming to the foot of the cross on Good Friday so that you are ready to rejoice at the empty tomb on Easter Day.
God bless you.