Ezekiel 37.1-14; John 11.1-45
+ I picked up an interesting book a couple of weeks ago. It was one of those books I thought, when I bought it, would be great Lenten reading. The book is Heavenly Bodies; Cult Treasures and Spectacular Saints from the Catacombs. It’s a book of photographs of skeletons—yes, skeletons— from the Roman Catacombs that were, in the Middle Ages, distributed about Europe as relics of the saints and early Christian martyrs. More often than not, these relics were placed in glass cases in churches, dressed in luxurious clothing and posed in various lifelike displays.
It’s the kind of book that, if you saw it, you would no doubt say: “This is a book Fr. Jamie would LOVE!” I certainly thought that when I first saw the book. What great Lenten reading, I thought! I got the book, I sat down with it one night, and……it creeped me out.
Looking at photograph after photograph of jewel-bedecked skeletons—full, completely skeletons, often dressed in gold-encrusted clothing, with crowns and masks made of jewels, I will say, I actually got the creepy-crawlies. I actually had to put the book aside, mostly unread.
For the first and only time in my life—and I’m almost ashamed to admit this—I found myself actually agreeing with, of all people, (sigh) John Calvin. Calvin, of course, found such displays horrific. He believed that displaying human remains in any way was a travesty. He believed, as we do, certainly our Book of Common Prayer affirms this, that “all flesh is dust, [and] to dust it must return…”
“To attempt the resurrection of the dead ‘before the appointed time by raising them in pomp and state’ was an offense.” (p. 26 Heavenly Bodies)
And I will say there was something kind of offensive about seeing these saints bones propped up in such a way.
I know. John Calvin and Jamie Parsley. Those are two names you probably never thought you would hear in one sentence. Certainly I never did.
But Calvin was, of course, very against the displays of saints’ relics. And I must say, so am I. At least like they were in this book.
Those relics in that book, meant to inspire people to have faith in the Communion of Saints and the sanctity of the human body, only managed to shock me. They jarred me in an unpleasant way. There is something disconcerting and downright frightening about looking into the empty sockets of human skull.
Certainly, two of our readings today are also sobering experiences that jar us and make us sit up and take notice. The first jarring reading, of course, is Ezekiel’s vision of the dry bones. It’s a great story in this Lenten season and it speak loudly to the theme that I’ve used this Lent on our broken selves being made whole.
The second reading that jars us is the raising of Lazarus. Both are filled with images of the dead being raised. The story that probably speaks most deeply to us though is the story of Lazarus. And this story takes on much deeper meaning when we examine it closely and place it within the context of its time.
One of our first clues that the something is different in this story is that, when Jesus arrives at the tomb of his friend Lazarus, he is told that Lazarus has been dead four days. This clue of “four days” is important.
First of all, from simply a practical point, we can all imagine what condition Lazarus’s body would be in after four days. This body would not have been embalmed like we understand embalming today in the United States. There was no refrigeration, no sealed metal caskets, no reconstructive cosmetics for the body of Lazarus. In the heat of that country, his body would, by the fourth day, be well into the beginning stages of decomposition. There would be some major physical destruction occurring.
Second, according to Jewish understanding, when the soul left the body, a connection would still be maintained with that body for a period of three days. According to Jewish thinking of this time, the belief was the soul might be reunited with the body up to three days, but after that, because the body would not be recognizable to the departed soul because of decomposition, any reuniting would be impossible. After those three days, the final separation from the body by the soul would have been complete. The soul would truly be gone. The body would truly be dead.
So, when Jesus came upon the tomb of Lazarus and tells them to roll the stone away, Martha says to him that there will be stench. He was truly dead—dead physically and dead from the perspective of his soul being truly separated from his body.
So, when the tomb was opened for Jesus, he would be encountering what most of us would think was impossible. Jesus not only reunited Lazarus’ spirit with his body, he also healed the physical destruction done to Lazarus’s body by decomposition. It would have been truly amazing.
And Jesus would truly have been proven to be more than just some magician, playing tricks on the people. He wasn’t simply awakening someone who appeared to be dead, someone who might have actually been in a deep coma. There was no doubt that Lazarus was truly dead and now, he was, once again alive.
Now, at first glance, both our reading from the Hebrew scriptures and our Gospel readings seem a bit morbid. These are things we don’t want to think about.
But the fact is, we are rapidly heading toward Holy Week. Next week at this time, we will be celebrating the triumphant entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. We will be hearing the joyful cries of the crowd as he rides forth. Within 11 days from now, we will hear those cries of joy turn into cries of jeering and accusation. And, within no time, we will be hearing cries of despair and mourning.
We, as Christians who follow Jesus, will be hearing about betrayal, torture, murder and death as Jesus journeys away from us into the cold dark shadow of death. These images of death we encounter in today’s readings simply help nudge us in the direction of the events toward which we are racing.
During Holy Week, we too will be faced with images we might find disturbing. Jesus will be betrayed and abandoned by his friends and loved ones. He will be tortured, mocked and whipped. He will be forced to carry the very instrument of his death to the place of his execution. And there he will be murdered in a very gruesome way.
Following that death, he will be buried in a tomb, much the same way his friend Lazarus was. But unlike Lazarus, what happens to Jesus will take place within the three days at that time required for a soul to make a final break from his body.
And this brings us back to the story of Lazarus. We often make the mistake, when think about the story of Lazarus, that Lazarus was resurrected. The fact is, he was not resurrected. In seminary, I had a professor who made very clear to us that Lazarus was not resurrected in our Gospel reading. It was not resurrection because Lazarus would eventually die again. He was simply brought back to life. He was resuscitated, shall we say.
So, Lazarus truly did rise from the tomb in Bethany, but he was not resurrected there. He went on to live a life somewhat similar to the life he lived before. And eventually, he died again.
But Resurrection is, as we no doubt know, different. Resurrection is rising from death into a life that does not end. Resurrection is rising from all the things we encounter in our readings for today—dry bones, tombs, decomposition and death. Resurrection is rising from our own broken selves into a wholeness that will never be taken away from us. Resurrection is new bodies, a new understanding of everything, a new and unending life. Resurrection, when it happens, cannot be undone. It cannot be taken away. Resurrection destroys the hold of death. Resurrection destroys death.
And the first person to be resurrected was not Lazarus. The first person to be resurrected was, of course, Jesus. His resurrection is important not simply because he was the first. His resurrection is important because it, in a real sense, destroys death once and for all.
Yes, we will all die. Yes, we will go down into the grave, into that place of bones and ashes. But, the resurrection of Jesus casts new light on the deaths we must die. The resurrection of Jesus shows us that we will rise from the destruction of our bodies—and our lives—into a life like the life of the resurrected Jesus. We will be raised into a life that never ends, a life in which “sorrow and pain are no more, neither sighing, but life eternal,” as we celebrate in the Burial Office of the Book of Common Prayer.
Because Jesus died and then trampled death, he took away eternal death. Our bodies may die, but we will rise again with him into a new and awesome life.
So, as we move through these last days of Lent toward that long, painful week of Holy Week, we go forward knowing full well what await us on the other side of the Cross of Good Friday. We go forward knowing that the glorious dawn of Easter awaits us. And with it, the glory of resurrection and life everlasting awaits us as well.
So, let go forward. Let us move toward Holy Week, rejoicing with the crowd. And as the days darken and we grow weary with Jesus, let us keep focused on the Easter light that is just about to dawn on all of us.