[This is a homily I gave in 2005, shortly before making the momentous decision to launch a blog!]
There’s a paradox in this Gospel for Palm Sunday (Jn 12:1-18). Jesus has raised Lazarus from the dead, and Mary anoints Jesus for burial. We have one coming to life after having been dead and another one getting ready to die after being alive. The whole life of Jesus and the whole Christian faith are full of paradoxes, so we shouldn’t be surprised at that. As a matter of fact, the Eastern Liturgy delights in that. The mystery of God is not something that can simply be told like a newspaper story. There are always deep layers of meaning in it, as well as these paradoxical mysteries. This mystery of life and death is something that we’re going to enter into during Holy Week in a big way.
One thing I noticed in the Gospel text, which I think I never really paid any attention to before when I read this Gospel, is that it says, after Mary anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped them with her hair: “The house was filled with the fragrance of the oil.” Now that can just be a prosaic statement of fact. Well, yes, there was fragrant oil poured all over the place and hence the place was full of fragrance. But there’s something else here that goes deeper.
The house was full of another fragrance. The house was full of the Divine Energy of Jesus Christ. I’m sure that the atmosphere was just electrified, spiritually and emotionally charged. I mean, here was this man who was just raised from the dead. You know, we’re so awash in miracles by reading the Gospels that we get desensitized to what really happened and what it was like.
We heard the whole story of Lazarus yesterday, but today’s Gospel is introduced in a kind of matter-of-fact way that, well, they were having a dinner, and Lazarus was there. Lazarus was there? A couple of days earlier, Lazarus was in the grave! I mean, that’s incredible! Imagine that you have a friend or a relative, whom you stayed with during his final agony and sickness, witnessed his death, mourned him, went to his funeral, went to the cemetery, and watched him lowered down into the grave, and that’s it. Then, a few days later, there he is, sitting with you, eating supper—just laughing and talking and eating and drinking! It’s amazing!
There’s just such a sense, in meditating on this environment, this situation, of what it must have been like in their hearts, and Mary being so moved by what Jesus had done for her brother that in this spontaneous outpouring of love and adoration, she breaks this jar of precious oil and pours it all over Him and wipes his feet with her hair. You can sense that the room was filled with the fragrance and power of Divine Love, of this prophecy that He made of his passion that was going to happen in just a few days.
We’re not just reading a story; we’re entering into a mystery. We’re entering into the mystery of God made flesh who sacrificed his life to forgive our sins and to make it possible for us to live eternally. Let us keep that in mind and let us realize too that this temple is filled with the fragrance of incense, but it also needs to be filled with that fragrance of the presence of God, the power and love of God poured out for us, and our love should be poured out for Him like fragrant oil.
Now, going from the sublime to the iniquitous, Judas was there too. But Judas totally missed the point. He was blinded by his own agenda. He may have smelled the fragrance of the oil, but he didn’t breathe the fragrance of Divine Love and of the spiritual power of that moment, of that whole environment when everyone else was living in love and adoration, and Jesus was contemplating his sacrifice. Judas was out of the loop. He was in some other world and he didn’t get it. All he was concerned about at that moment was that he’d just lost a bunch of money that he could have kept for himself, like he used to do with the poor box.
Well, we know what his end was, and it’s very unfortunate. It’s a very complex situation perhaps, but the point that is made very clear by the evangelist is that he was not of the chosen. He was not of that circle of love that the evangelist mentioned before; he was on the outside, the blind, selfish one who couldn’t enter into that circle of love.
Now the Church wisely connects in her Liturgy the raising of Lazarus with Palm Sunday. The Eastern Church generally takes the Johannine view of things anyway, so this connection between Lazarus and Palm Sunday is very close. The Scripture itself tells us what the connection is. It says the reason why the crowd went to meet Him was that they heard that he had done this sign. It was because Jesus raised Lazarus that there was a Palm Sunday celebration in Jerusalem to meet Him. Plus there is the more theological reason about the prefiguration of Jesus’ own resurrection, and ours. But here we see that because He worked this miracle, which in John’s Gospel is really the climax of his whole life of manifesting these signs of his glory and of his divinity, this was the biggest one, the most dramatic and public one—the climax of his ministry and the beginning of his passion. Because once that happened, the rulers said, “OK, that’s it, we can’t take this anymore. We’ve got to get rid of this guy, because what is He going to do next? The whole world is following Him already!”
Now it says in the liturgical text that Jesus called Lazarus by name and he arose from the dead. First of all, that’s an incredible thing, to be dead and be in the netherworld and suddenly you hear the voice of Christ saying, “come forth,” and you come out of the dead and re-inhabit your body and walk out of the grave. That’s worth lots of meditation in itself. But what I want to focus on here now is that calling by name.
We are not an anonymous crowd in Jerusalem shouting “hosanna” as Jesus just walks by and sees—like I see without my glasses right now—a blur of faces out there. Jesus knows each one of us and He calls us by name. He wants to do something for us. That’s what He’s about. He lives to help us, save us, to lead us to Heaven.
So He comes into Jerusalem to call us by name, to pick us out of the crowd and say, I know you and I want you to follow Me. I’m going into Jerusalem. I’m going to my passion and death. Are you willing to follow me, because I’m going to take you also into my resurrection and back to Paradise. He’s calling us. He knows us. Don’t think that God doesn’t know you, that He overlooked you somehow or that you’re just kind of on the fringes of his consciousness or something. He knows you personally and calls you by name. Everything He does and is doing is for us.
Now it says in the Scripture here that after He entered Jerusalem, his disciples didn’t understand all of this. But when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered what had been written of Him. So they didn’t see, they didn’t make the connections with what He had said, even though He made several predictions about what was going to happen to Him and tried to explain to them the prophecies. They didn’t get it until Jesus was glorified, that is, until He died and rose again and sent the Spirit. Then they remembered. And we need to remember, too.
In the film, The Passion of the Christ, there was a connection that was made for us about the entrance into Jerusalem. A little flashback shows Jesus on the donkey entering into Jerusalem, with people waving palms and singing hosanna, and immediately we go back to the reality of his carrying the Cross. So He goes into the city with palms and hosannas, and He goes out of the city carrying the Cross with insults and spitting. We have to make the connection and see where we fit in there.
The disciples did not understand. They had a pretty good excuse because they hadn’t received the Holy Spirit yet. Well, do we understand after two thousand years of Church tradition and millions of books and treatises on all the theology and spirituality of the Christian religion? Do we understand yet who Jesus is and what the events of his life mean for us? We need to read and meditate on the Scriptures and go deeply into our prayer so that we know who this Jesus of Nazareth is, and so we will not be blind like Judas, missing the point of everything that He’s done for us, everything that is happening in our midst. This is a moment of grace, of the presence of God in us. Let’s not miss the moment because we’re distracted with something, or because we have our own little problems that we’re all wrapped up in, or because we’re just too thickheaded to even want to pay attention.
We have to break through all that. We have to listen. We have to seek, long for Him. Pray, desire to be drawn into this mystery, to be given understanding so that we can participate fully in the great mystery of God’s love for us, manifested to us in his passion and death and resurrection.
We’re called in our liturgical celebration to remember what Jesus has done for us, and by remembering make it present to us and inside us. We have to remember any time that we’ve ever had any experience of God’s presence and love in our lives. Remember any insights into the mysteries that you’ve ever had. Now is the time to remember, to cherish, to celebrate, to carry it with you during this Holy Week. This present moment may not be a moment when you feel particularly spiritually exalted or whatever, but we’ve had those moments in the past. We’ve had moments when we recognized the presence of God, when his Spirit has moved us. Latch on to them, remember them, bring them into your conscious awareness during this Holy Week and know that the best, the deepest that you’ve ever experienced of God’s love is just the beginning of what He wants to show you, and that He’s willing to show you more, beginning now, if you’re willing and if you’re open and if you want to respond and to praise Him.
So let us be filled with the fragrance of these divine mysteries, with his sacrificial love, and let us receive Jesus now, welcome Him in the Holy Eucharist. Receive Him into your heart and go into that mystery of his divine love for us and respond with all your heart, singing, “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!”