The Three Marys
—Rev Margaret Bird, Tuesday in Holy Week (11 April 2017)
John 12. 20–36.
Jesus speaks of death as we journey in Holy Week and his life nears its climax. We know that this week will end in a painful and shameful death; but in this moment, for Jesus, he is still preparing his friends and followers for the inevitable conclusion of his triumphant entry into Jerusalem.
If you talk with local Funeral directors, they will tell you how busy they have been this year over the past months since Christmas. It’s so unusual, they say, to receive so many funeral requests at this time of year. Yet death is unavoidable; we are born, we live, we die; this is the rhythm of all life since time began.
In this William Blake watercolour, we can see Jesus. His life has ended on a cross of shame and degradation; now he is being carried towards his final resting place. His body shows no sign of the pain and torture that has struck at the core of his being during the past hours; he lies at rest, his face no longer contorted in agony or marked with piercing lacerations from a crown of thorns. Washed, prepared for burial – lying still as if asleep, Jesus is borne to a tomb hewn out of the rock, originally prepared for Joseph of Arimithea who accompanies him, walking, head bowed.
His face betrays what he feels inside–eyes fixed ahead but filled with sadness; is this how it was supposed to end, he thinks–how can the one that was sent to free us leave us here on our own still limited and bound by this world of cruelty and oppression where the marginalised, the outcast and the misfit are left behind.
His expression says it all – this is a journey he never imagined would happen and now, despondent and traumatised he accompanies his friend and master to the tomb – his final act of gratitude, a gift to the one who gave him so much, who gave him hope, opened his mind to what could be; the one who showed that God was here, present with them.
Following behind we see the three Marys. Keeping watch, a mother, a follower, an apostle. Their utter despondency can be seen in their heavy steps as they reluctantly follow the bier, turning their faces away from the image of the cross that crowns the horizon – reminding us of recent events that cut through their very souls. Empty now, but still an image of our capacity as human beings to wreak the most appalling pain and torture on one another; whether through fear, a thirst for power, riches or just through plain wickedness, the human race has never ceased to kill and maim the weak and the powerless in the name of religion, race, sexuality or supremacy.
Like the Marys, we turn our face away from what we do not want to see, what disturbs us and annoys, what we feel powerless to change or because of our complacency or complicity. Easier to ignore than face the truth within ourselves. We say - we cannot accept blame for any actions or decisions if we choose not to take part or to have opinions, if we decide not to notice what is going on. We travel blinkered to the injustices within our own communities or the atrocities committed throughout the world.
The image of the empty cross on the horizon reminds us of the stark reality that somewhere, others are waiting to be killed in the name of justice; someone’s son, someone’s daughter under sentence of death awaits the dawn. We see the city stretching beyond, faint against the evening light. Here his disciples hide, out of sight, fearful in the midst of a city bustling at Passover. A reminder of another sacrificial lamb, sent to the slaughter to save another people captured, enslaved, bound, oppressed.
We carry our own death within ourselves. Death is our ultimate fear. It is the one, inevitable reality we will all face.
During this Holy week, we were forced to travel that difficult journey with Jesus. Today we pause in this place of in-between, this liminal place between death and life – the crucifixion and the resurrection. We must be fully present to the journey of Jesus over these few days, the gift of his body and blood, the starkness of Good Friday and to the Saturday space between, before we can fully experience the joy and triumph of the resurrection.
Share a last meal together and stand at the foot of the cross, and then bear his body to the tomb. Our faith tells us that the following day we will awake to a new dawn, a new era that promises eternal life. But for now, we share this place of in-between – this place of waiting, anticipating, this place of grief and sorrow.
Our faith must also take us on a parallel journey that bears the cross of Christ on our shoulders, that makes us the carrier of his cross too–we must stand in those challenging places–times of sadness and loneliness, of pain and grief, of change and hardship. We too bear his broken, tortured body to the grave because we are his disciples and know that he shares our burdens too. We recognise the terrible experience of loss of those we have known and loved–the experience we see in the faces of Joseph and the three Marys that happens over and over again in our world so that when the promise of new life dawns we can allow it to enter into us fully - into the hollow space left through loss. Our spiritual journey is not just about feeling good – at peace within ourselves our faces shining in the delight of knowing our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.
How we wish we could share with Joseph, the three Marys and the solemn pall bearers how this journey will end. An empty tomb, a glorious resurrection, a friend and son returned to those who love him and the promise of new life for all. But for the moment we are still in this in-between space, hovering between Life and death–all is yet to be revealed. These weary travellers, with heads bowed, are to be his witnesses–to discover the empty tomb, to meet the risen Christ, to be commissioned as evangelists and to receive the gift of the Spirit.
But for now they wait, we wait in this space of in-between.