On Living Close to Death

“Six days before Passover.”
Probably a couple of months–though only one chapter–after Lazarus was dead, and then not dead.
Only seven days–and seven chapters–before the crucifixion.
“Six days before Passover.” Wedged between resurrection and death.

“Jesus came to Bethany.”
Just north of Bethlehem and that legendary manger.
Just east of Jerusalem and that infamous cross.
“Jesus came to Bethany.” Wedged between his birth and his death.

It must have been a tense time and a holy time around that table in Bethany, six days before Passover.
Because the Holy Presence hovers in these liminal spaces, these in-betweens, these thresholds separating life and death.

The morning my dad went into Hospice–the day before he died–he told me:
“I am with God. As long as you are with God, we are together.”
“I am with God.”
But he didn’t mean it that way. That easy way that we mean when we say, “God be with you.”
He meant that he was really, deeply, already–though not quite yet–fully with God.
I’ve had many holy experiences in my life, and I have never known God to be so thick and terrifying and real around me as in that moment.

I can only imagine that God was present around the table in the home of Mary and Martha and Lazarus that night. Present in this same intense and disorienting way.
Because like my dad’s bedside, that table was a place wedged between life and death.
A threshold where you want to linger. Unsatisfied with what has been. Afraid of what will be.
Yes, Lazarus is alive. But he has been dead. Wrapped, buried, stinking dead. And because he has been dead, Mary and Martha are acutely aware that he can and will be dead again. Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust. . . . Yes indeed.

And then Jesus shows up with his followers–only one and a half miles from Jerusalem,
where there is a warrant out for his arrest.
Where there are armed soldiers looking for him.
Where guards carry whips.
Where the vertical beams of crosses already rise from the ground of Golgotha–the “Place of the Skull”–waiting for the condemned who haul their own crossbeams.

Jesus certainly seems to know that his journey into Jerusalem will end (initially) with his death.
Mary and Martha and Lazarus must have a pretty good idea where this is headed–if they will let themselves know it.Their friend, their teacher, their Lord, Jesus, is, as they say, not long for this world. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Yes.

And so this meal becomes a sort of death bed scene. Infused with the energy of life, the energy of death.
Revealing the hearts of those who surround Jesus.
And it is beautiful.

We usually focus on Mary-the sharp scent of her nard, the caress of her long silky hair.
It’s easy to miss the second part of the second verse: “Martha served, while Lazarus was among those reclining at the table with Jesus.”
All three siblings are doing what should be done on that threshold between life and death.
Six days before Passover. A mile and a half from Jerusalem.
In serving, relaxing, anointing, each one is doing what needs done; they are being present in the moment. They are willing to stay right there with Jesus in that intense, God-thick, death-echoing, life-pulsing place.

It is only Judas who tries to get away. Judas who says, “Why didn’t Mary sell that expensive perfume so we could give the money to the poor?”
“Oh,” says Jesus, “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”

Even those who hadn’t yet accepted the fact of Jesus’ impending death could not escape the sharp, minty scent of the oil as Mary anointed Jesus for his burial.

Even my 8-year-old daughter knew the closeness of death as she clung to her grandfather’s hand in the hospice room.

Sometimes we know how close death is.
Because the warrant is out and the cross posts are set.
Because the tests have come back and diagnosis is in.

Sometimes we know, and in those moments–those frightening and holy moments, it can be easy to focus on the person in front of us.Easy to let other things go as we massage the feet, wipe the brow, of the person we love.

Sometimes, though, we don’t know.
God is more hidden. The smell of death is not in the air.

Yet still, we live always wedged between the temporal and the eternal.
Any moment could be a threshold between life and death.
Any moment could be that holy ground.
And because it could be, it is. Holy. Every moment. Amen.

– – – – – –

*This reflection is excerpted from the sermon I preached on John 12:1-11 last Sunday–the Sunday following my father’s funeral. Afterwards, the worship leader said that the whole sermon felt like a poem (which may be the best sermon compliment I’ve ever received). So I decided to pare it down and form it into a pseudo-poem for this space.

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7 thoughts on “On Living Close to Death

  1. This is beautiful Joanna–I love the quote from your father, “I am with God.”

    I preached on this text last Sunday (filling in for the past) but I think your journey with your father gave deeper layer–really, meaning–with the text.

    Thanks for sharing this, as always.
    June

  2. This past Sunday our pastor preached on this text and sprayed lavendar around the room so we could smell the scent of Mary’s discipleship, as she put it. It was brave to do in this era of fragrance sensitivities, and we’re NOT Catholic, so it was a neat way to bring another sense to the story. Your poetry/prose is lovely. I’ve often said that most people who think they don’t like poetry will read the same lines as prose and be just fine. 🙂

    • Melody, I think the strong sense of scent is one reason I love this story so much. I’m sure there were lots of smells in Jesus’ day, but they are rarely made explicit in the stories.

  3. Thank you for this, Joanna – I will be holding on to this image on the journey through this Holy Week and for a long time.

  4. Pingback: Fatherless Fathers’ Day | Spacious Faith

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