It is exciting to read Isaiah 43:16-21 a couple of weeks out from Easter Day:
'I am about to do a new thing' (v.19).
As we journey with Jesus to the cross we are allowed an anticipation of what lies beyond, the resurrection as a 'new thing', a new dimension to life which is not accounted for in terms of the 'former things' (v. 18).
To be excited in this way is to be open to laughing, shouting for joy and generally rejoicing at the Lord's great work, for which Psalm 126 is a great aid. The psalmist, in a series sometimes known as 'Songs of Ascents' (Psalms 120-134), is either looking back on God's restoration of 'Zion' (i.e. of Israel, its great city and the temple within it) following the Babylonian exile or looking forward to it.
In the former case either a new misfortune has struck Israel or, perhaps more likely, the completion of the restoration of the exiles has not yet occurred (vss. 4-6), in the latter case, the prayer of the last three verses is a fervent prayer for restoration from Israel's plight under Babylon. In the context of Passion Sunday (reflecting on the suffering of Jesus), this psalm speaks joyfully of what God accomplishes in the resurrection of Jesus and realistically of the suffering of Jesus.
Paul writing to the Philippians, 3:4b-14, can speak of suffering and resurrection in one passage (and what a passage it is, as Paul's sets out his reasons for being confident because of Christ that his life is on track and steadily moving towards 'the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus' (3:14).) Thus Paul's personal ambition is 'to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if I may somehow attain the resurrection from the dead' (3:10-11).
It would be a mistake to think that Paul's last words in the citation above mean he is uncertain and doubtful as to whether he will 'attain the resurrection from the dead.' He knows (and we know he knows), as he expresses through his writings with the most extraordinary confidence, that Christ has saved him. Not because of something he has done but because of what Christ has done for him.
The sense of 'may attain' is more that Paul is eager to embrace the experience of Christ within him fully. He is up for experiencing suffering that he might identify with and understand Christ better. He wishes to attain the resurrection from the dead via this empathetic route of suffering with Christ. But will he experience real depth, or will his life be snatched away from him peremptorily?
When finally we bring our attentive reading to the gospel, John 12:1-8, we are in a mind and mood to engage with the solemnity of a special dinner party at Bethany, a few miles from Jerusalem. Here the smell of Jesus' death is in the air. Perhaps only Jesus and Mary sensed this at the time. But as readers we know that Jesus' death is close at hand. In contrast to the other three readings, there is no anticipation of the resurrection. Indeed the concluding words of Jesus imply a permanent loss when he departs, 'You will always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me' (v. 8).
From a narratival perspective this dinner party functions to turn the plot's development from the raising of Lazarus from the dead to the death of Jesus. (Indeed the raising of Lazarus from the dead is the specific occasion of turning opposition to Jesus into a plan that Jesus will die, 11:45-57; 12:9-11).
The anointing by Mary is a prophecy of Jesus' burial. The significance of Jesus is great enough to warrant the donation of this costly perfume to his body ahead of any good the equivalent money might have achieved for the poor. Reflection on this calculation also allows John to tell us that Judas Iscariot was about to betray him - another link in the chain of events which will take Jesus to the cross (12:4).
Dinner parties feature frequently in the gospels, normally as occasions for debate or discourse. Here there is little of either. But this dinner party sets the scene for the tumultuous events which are about to unfold, the first of which is the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem (i.e. 12:12-19: Palm Sunday). It will parallel a meal later in the week in which Jesus will begin his final testament of teaching (John's Last Supper and its afterwards, 13:1 - 17:26).
Whether Jesus was anointed by a woman on several occasions or just one, the motif of a meal made memorable by anointing must have stayed strongly in the memory of the first Christians as the four gospels give us three versions of a meal of this kind.
One meal, early in Jesus' ministry (with an unnamed sinful woman at the home of Simon, Luke 7:36-50).
Another meal, 'six days before passover,' specifically associated with 'the home of Lazarus' in Bethany with Martha serving and Mary anointing (John 12:1-8).
Finally, a meal 'two days before Passover ... at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper' with an unnamed woman (Mark 14:1-10 = Matthew 26:6-13). In each case, we are struck by the central action of the anointing of Jesus by a woman clearly and unmistakably devoted to Jesus.
What do we do to show that we love the Lord?
Is our love for Jesus given extravagantly or cautiously?
Are we willing to share with Jesus' sufferings that we might experience his resurrection?