Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The Odium of Death and the Fragrance of the Cross

Speaking of John's gospel...

Last night, our small group discussed John 12. John takes pains in said chapter to tether Jesus' anointing/triumphal entry to the raising of Lazarus. Consider these explicit connections;

John 12:1-2: Six days before the Passover, Jesus therefore came to Bethany, where Lazarus was, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. 2 So they gave a dinner for him there. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those reclining with him at the table.

John 12:9-11: When the large crowd of the Jews learned that Jesus was there, they came, not only on account of him but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 10 So the chief priests made plans to put Lazarus to death as well, 11 because on account of him many of the Jews were going away and believing in Jesus.

John 12:17-19: 17 The crowd that had been with him when he called Lazarus out of the tomb and raised him from the dead continued to bear witness. 18 The reason why the crowd went to meet him was that they heard he had done this sign. 19 So the Pharisees said to one another, "You see that you are gaining nothing. Look, the world has gone after him."

According to John, Jesus' anointing/entry must be understood in light of the frenetic milieu occasioned by Lazarus' resuscitation. But John does not connect these stories merely to pique our historical curiosity. John has a theological point to make (surprise, surprise). As John Pryor says;

...the last great sign of Jesus [viz. the raising of Lazarus], which sums up all the other signs and establishes him as 'the life of men' (as the prologue has already declared), becomes for John the catalyst for the passion events which follow. But John the great theologian is not content simply to tell the story, but must also tell the deeper story: the life-giver must give his own life.

John: Evangelist of the Covenant People - The Narrative & Themes of the Fourth Gospel (Downers Grove, Ill: IVP, 1992); 49.

True life can only be imparted to Lazarus (or anyone, for that matter) through the death of the Son of God. Given the aforementioned connections between these chapters, I believe I have warrant to suggest one more...

In 11:39, Martha is concerned about the odor which might come from Lazarus' tomb. In 12:3, John notes that the perfume with which Mary anoints Jesus fills the house with its fragrance. Prima facie, these appear to be ancillary details. But is anything just
ancillary in John's gospel? Perhaps John employs such statements to articulate his theology of death. Death is the great foe of humanity; an odious monstrosity that devours all that is good. In contrast, Jesus' death - symbolized by Mary's anointing - is a life-giving fragrance that fills the house. John envisages the cross as the moment of Jesus' vindication/glorification (Jn 12:23, 28; cf. 17:5). The shame and ignominy of the cross mustn't blind us to the victory God brought about through it. Jesus' death is the fragrance of life, for it ensures that we will no longer be plagued by the odium of death.

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