All I wanted was to lift you up
and walk away.
But you grew small, curled down
into my hand, nestling
like a mouse preparing for winter.
How easy it would have been
to finish it there, to crush you,
to save everyone the trouble.
Or to run, carry you off,
find somewhere dark to sleep,
to heal as we dreamed.
But, no. We walked
as they commanded us,
you growing tall again,
the look on your face
as we reached the hill,
furious, as if to say,
why didn’t you take
It may strike some of you as too soon to be talking about Simon Cyrene and his encounter with Christ on the road to Golgotha. After all, today’s gospel talks about another remarkable encounter – between Mary, sister of Lazarus and Martha, and Jesus, rather than Simon. Equally, you might object that my poem plays too freely with the crucifixion narrative, imagining Simon carrying Christ in the palm of his hand rather than lifting the instrument of torture on Christ’s behalf. But this is Passion Sunday. This is a day for turning our attention firmly towards those events in Jerusalem that culminated in death and humiliation. It is time, once again, to begin to reflect on the meaning of Passion itself. And this meditation on Passion – where perhaps we expect only violence and torture – will, if it is authentic, lead us to ponder moments of unexpected intimacy and delicacy.
Perhaps the very notion of the ‘Passion of Christ’ is too much for us. That is, to try to comprehend ‘the Passion’ – even as we might pick out particular details to ground our meditations – is simply too vast for us to find ready purchase. It is, then, worth reminding ourselves of the simplicity of the original meaning of the word ‘passion’. To be in a place of ‘passion’ is to experience ‘an undergoing,’ that is, to be subjected to something. The Anglican priest and writer W.H.Vanstone famously goes so far as to suggest that ‘passion’ is all about being handed over – to be placed into the hands of others, to be done to rather than doing. If in the place of ‘passion’ we are not always passive, we are not in charge.
The poor, the disabled and unemployed in the UK are currently being subjected to – are being handed over – to the most unpleasant reforms in welfare for thirty odd years. The coalition government seems intent upon stigmatizing the most vulnerable in society – labeling them as work-shy, lazy and many other unpleasant and cheap epithets – whilst being unwilling to properly tax the extremely wealthy and call our banking and trading system to account. The spectre of Victorian Values – of laissez-faire, the poor divided into categories of deserving and undeserving, and mercantile individualism – has been raised in the most sustained way since the 1980s. As the Christian Think Tank Ekklesia notes, a new churches’ report (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/files/truth_and_lies_report_final.pdf), published by the Baptist Union of Great Britain, the Church of Scotland, the Methodist Church and the United Reformed Church through their Joint Public Issues Team, shows how evidence and statistics have been misused, misrepresented and manipulated to create untruths that stigmatize poor people, welfare recipients and those in receipt of benefits.
It may seem troubling to some then that, in the Lukan account, it is apparently the betrayer Judas who raises his voice for ‘the poor’. His response to the extravagant use of nard by Mary is, ‘Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?’ Despite the gloss Luke gives to this comment – that Judas didn’t actually give a damn for the poor – it is not exactly a facetious question. If God has a preferential option for the poor, then from an uncompromising social activist perspective, there is much to be said for avoiding action which comes over as personal extravagance. It might even be suggested that Jesus de-politicizes the situation further by suggested Mary’s actions are permissible or to be applauded because, ‘The poor you will always have with you. But you do not always have me.’
The exchange between Jesus and Judas and the action of Mary is a reminder of both the vastness and the domesticity of ‘passion’. The notion of ‘the poor’ is a term which transcends party political divides. It may be used to write a whole group of people off or to indicate the bewildering extent of human need. At some level, it is perhaps an unavoidable term in the world of practical politics. For the simple fact is that the experience of ‘being handed over’, of not being in control, of lacking the obvious means of power and control has been most of humanity’s experience throughout the ages. At a profound level, ‘the poor’ – the ones who are done to rather than doing – will always be with us. And so massive is this level of marginalization that those who seek to either transform structures of injustice or wish to make political advantage out of the vulnerable will resort to general terms. But if generalization is expedient or necessary it also indicates how very difficult it is for anyone to conceptualize ‘passion’ on that scale. Part of the power of the gospels and the story of the Christ is how it brings it small, enables us to be stirred by a human encounter. To see Christ as the locus for passion, transformation and marginalization.
So Mary, in the domesticity of the home, anoints Jesus with pure nard. She participates in ‘passion’ by handing herself over to Jesus in an intimate act. She is in the hands of the other because she is open to the scorn not only of Judas but of Christ himself. A person whose status – as woman – is already in question, sees an opportunity to act and serve and makes her move. She who has very little already – in terms of power, status and wealth – risks it all in an act of passion which, if it has erotic dimensions, is also a determined political act. She sees how the possibility of salvation must be as grounded in the risks of the particular and specific as much as the safe, but often-overwhelmingly big categories. If the notion of ‘the poor’ or ‘the vulnerable’ or whatever, either is easy or horrifies us (consider a phrase like ‘the great unwashed’) our community praxis means nothing if we are not handed over to others. Like Simon Cyrene in my poem or Mary in the story we are invited to be given over to others in intimacy, anointing others and being anointed, carrying others and being carried. To retreat to vast categories, if unavoidable, risks a disheartened and disheartening politics.
It is constantly tempting for people of faith to present the ‘object’ of their faith in a wondrous shining light – as a kind of divine ‘vestal virgin’, pure, unsullied and shimmering in white. And, in truth, there are plenty of images not only in the Bible, but in all of the major religious traditions to support something akin to this picture. But – even as it captures something many want to assert – it misses the deep mystery of the God in Christ. For the God in Christ is all about passion: he becomes our victim, handed over to us, the subject of our jealousies, fears and our desire to be in control. This is a god who gets filthy in the dust of Palestine. This is a god tortured at the end of a whip. This is a god who is mocked and killed. This is no clean, unsullied immortal. This is a man thoroughly caught up in and destroyed by the violence of the world
This is a man who is intimate with the world’s darkness. And in this ironic world it is the perpetrators of violence who claim to be agents of light: the keepers of the peace, the protectors of the faith and the saviours of the nation. And on any human calculation these claims are reasonable: to wish to protect the nation from further violence or from one’s occupiers is humanly commendable. These people are wearing metaphorical white hats. It is only the one who is unafraid of darkness who embodies God’s way. Christ is the one who discovers in the darkness the hope for the world and who takes the darkness into his being. He is the rejected one who travels down into the darkness of the dead, who walks in the company of the dead and the lost and yet is not completely destroyed. He is the one who takes death within himself and offers new life and hope. He becomes both passion and its transformation.
[This post is part of our series on the politics of scripture, focusing on weekly preaching texts. We also welcome commentary on sacred, classic, and popular literature, film, and artistic expression. Inquiries and submissions may be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.]