This year’s strange Lent is coming to its end; though only in the church calendar, rather than in terms of the restrictions imposed on our lives by the COVID pandemic. Next week, we will commemorate “the beginning of the cross” on Palm Sunday. In the early church, the eve of Palm Sunday was in itself another important feast, called " the announcement of Pascha". To this day, this feast is celebrated by the Orthodox Christians, who call it “the Saturday of Lazarus”. In our tradition, there are no regular Saturday liturgies, but we, too, read this passage on the penultimate Sunday of Lent, because it provides the key to the entire mystery of Pascha. For it’s with Lazarus' resurrection that the decisive duel between Life and Death truly begins, at least in the gospel account offered by St John. And the Old Testament reading paired with this gospel is that of Ezekiel’s vision of dry bones that similarly come to life to foreshadow the forthcoming victory of God over the power of evil.
Ezekiel was an Israelite who lived at the turn of the 6th century BC. He was training to be a priest and was about to turn 30 years-old - just old enough to finally begin his work at the Temple, or as old as when Christ began his ministry - when all that which he was preparing and longing for, his entire identity and vocation, was suddenly taken away from him and other young men who were captured and carried away to Babylon; the Temple laying in ruins. All the hopes and vision for the future was gone, for him and for his people. Today, for the first time in a while, we, whose hopes for this spring have been shattered by the reality of our “new normal”, can truly empathize.
In the Scriptures, the image of “bones” is often used to refer, idiomatically, to one’s deepest essence. But to Ezekiel, this image of a valley covered with bones was not merely a symbolic concept. He lived at a time when one could find literal valleys of bones-places where the slain enemy had been overwhelmed, and there was no one to bury them. Until recently, in our part of the world, we’ve been enjoying times of relative peace; as most of the world’s conflict was perceived to take place somewhere else, at arms-length. Suddenly, this week we are reading the story of Lazarus’ resurrection with an entirely new set of eyes. With a new sense of poignancy, we gaze together with Jesus at the grave of his friend, and face the full essence of humanity he shared with us: our mortality, the knowledge that everything is perishable, that we only have so many days on earth, we only have so much we get to do, and be, and experience. We also share Ezekiel’s feelings, as he too, stared at the sea of dry bones, and knew that the exile meant to his people more than a military loss, but also a crisis of faith and identity. And so we find ourselves today, confronted, quite bluntly, not only with our mortality, but also with the fragility of everything in the world that we hold dear and rely upon for our wellbeing.
I wonder whether in this gospel story God is supposed to have allowed Lazarus to die not so that the disciples or the sisters are strengthened in their faith, but primarily so that Jesus can be seen to have a real, human, in person experience of grief. After all, in every Lenten Gospel passage so far, we’ve read about Jesus’ encounters with other essential aspects of human condition (all its “bones”, so to speak): temptation and doubt, loneliness and blindness. Jesus never flinched from touching what others in his culture considered “unclean”: questionable lifestyles, sickness and death. Jesus never recoiled from these experiences, and what’s more - they moved him to tears. Similarly, Ezekiel and other prophets who prefigured Jesus were also put into numerous unclean situations, from marrying a prostitute to baking bread over the burning cow dung, to in Ezikiel’s case, wading through a sea of dead remains. These passages promise that God will enter fully into all aspects of our condition. Rather than us having to somehow clean ourselves to approach him, s/he comes down himself to dwell right among us, and raise up our condition to the heights of his glory. As we arise one day out of our present pandemic situation, where we will find its glory? Will it be redeemed to us one day, perhaps by the heightened awareness of our dependence on God and others?
We have every reason to hope that it will. The Gospels do go on to tell us that God has the ultimate power to overcome all evil. However, we also know first-hand that in our earthly lives, this revival is gradual. No doubt, the logistical side of the return of our lives to normal will be a gradual process. But also spiritually, when this is all over, may we never allow ourselves simply to rush right back in, forget how close we came to face our mortality, how fragile is our economic system, and how dependent we are on the rest of the society for everything from toilet paper to entertainment. To do so would be akin to simply putting the new flesh over the dry, still dead bones, which would result in outwardly beautiful, but completely lifeless bodies. To do so, would mean to have wasted these precious weeks of trial and reflection. For just as the dead bodies in Ezekiel were revived in an orderly process, working from the inside towards out, the scriptures advise us to work together with God towards the revival of our own “dry bones”, in a gradual fashion. Here I am reminded of the verse, “add to your faith virtue; and to virtue knowledge; and to knowledge temperance; and to temperance patience; and to patience godliness; and to godliness brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness charity" (2 Pet 1:5-7).
How has the spirit been working in your life over this time to enable this gradual transformation -- the translation of your own faith into virtue in the absence of the “formal” experience of church as we know it? Perhaps, the Spirit works in the ways that we, the 21st-century humans, have difficulty comprehending -- that is, until we find ourselves in the midst of an unprecedented crisis. Maybe, it is in the stillness and silence of solitary prayer, the tear shed on Good Friday; a set of prayer beads or an old prayer book; or in the longing for the glimmer of our communion vessels polished with love, the mystery of the bread and wine taken together, and the exchange of peace that we’ve been forced to give up. Or maybe, it is in the movement from knowledge, to patience, to true compassion towards each other, in every practical way in which we have been helping each through this crisis. Both our worship and charity flow out of the movement of the Spirit within us; and only taken together do they truly testify to the restorative power of God already at work in the world. Thanks be to God.