5th Sunday in Lent
Sometimes things break and sometimes they shatter. In a few short days, our life as we know it has ended. As the scope of a global pandemic dawns on us, we talk of little else, and everything we hear ourselves saying would have been ludicrous even a month ago. At this point two things seem clear: this Pandora’s box will not be closed, and we do not yet know what to hope for.
A man becomes ill and dies. Bereft, his friends call out to the one who could have stopped death in its tracks (John 11:16, 21, 32). They denounce Jesus for not changing its course. He comes four days too late; the nail is already in the coffin, the infection curve plotted. But then, when the stench of death rises, Lazarus’ friends are inclined to hope they could perhaps get him back (John 11: 39, 22). When something is broken, we want it undone.
Who doesn’t want life back? “A handshake with a stranger, the crowded theatre, Friday night out, the taste of communion, the school rush each morning, a boring Tuesday” says the poem Laura Kelly Fanucci left at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine this last week. We realize only now what we ought never again take for granted.
More than all the small, priceless things we lament is of course all the suffering. We want to undo the out-of-work mother foregoing meals to feed her six children on their drive-thru school lunches. We want an escape hatch for children trapped in homes with the ones who abuse them. We want the wicked who will most certainly find some way to prosper off all this to be thrown down and forced to pay back fourteen-fold what they have stolen.
Even more than that, what I want, if I am honest, is to have back false innocence. I want back the time when I could walk around Kroger overfilling my cart, making choices about the best kind of Greek yogurt. I do not want this curtain ripped back on my life. I do not want to be exposed as a catastrophe shows me, fearing for the wealth I thought I was not attached to, for the well-laid plans I had convinced myself were not idols.
When Mary and Martha want death undone, Jesus doesn’t say to them, “You fools, don’t you know, it could never go back, something has broken and is beyond all repair.” He is greatly disturbed along with them; he cries their same cries out to God (John 11:33, 38). And then, against all laws of nature, against all rules of disease and decay, God turns back time. God makes Lazarus un-dead, almost as if just to show that he could (John 11:4, 40).
But Martha doesn’t seem to quite notice how Jesus talked past her. Lazarus’ friends get what they ask for, but it’s not clear they get what Jesus has offered. Jesus said that “everyone who believes in me will never die” (John 11:26). Brought back to life as he was, Lazarus dies again some thirty years later. However enticing it might be, however much it is something God could deign to give us, turning back time on the world clock is not the same thing as our Christian hope.
In the midst of a 20-year plague that killed as many as 5,000 a day, St. Cyprian wrote to the 3rd century church, “Let us greet the day which assigns each of us to his own home, which snatches us hence, and sets us free from the snares of the world, and restores us to paradise and to the kingdom.”
I’ve always had a pet hatred of Christian thinking that despises the real world in hopes of some pie in the sky. Cyprian’s talk of paradise in the midst of pandemic sounds exactly like that kind of worthless, even dangerous, thinking. But we must ask ourselves what is the alternative? To pray only for our health and well-being?
As a midwife, I sign birth certificates as a part of my job. I mark the first time a person draws breath. After 935 times it’s become pretty routine. But on occasion it occurs to me that as surely as I write in ink, someone else will sign, date, and time the matching last exhalation.
Ezekiel stands in a valley of skeletons, of bodies long since dead, fully dried out and dissembled. “Can these bones live?” comes the question and his scoffing-hoping reply, “You oh LORD, know.” Lungless bodies do not breathe. So, God puts sinews on them, and flesh, and drapes them in skin, and then the breath from the four winds comes into them (Ezekiel 37:8, 10).
The breath Ezekiel calls forth cannot be just one more inhalation followed by some later, more final exhalation. The life that God gives is not just that borne by our mothers. It is fleshly, yes, and more than just flesh. This is a great mystery, but the way to resurrected life in God seems to lie through sin and repentance. “Though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness” (Romans 8:10).
Here it seems worth giving Cyprian a bit longer hearing. The plague he endured did end up named after him on account of the witness that he bore through it.
Beloved brethren…what a great thing is it, how pertinent, how necessary, that that pestilence and plague which seems horrible and deadly searches out the righteousness of each one, and examines the minds of the human race, to see whether they who are in health tend the sick… whether relations affectionately love their kindred … whether the wicked soften their boldness…. whether the rapacious can quench the ever insatiable ardour of their raging avarice even by the fear of death. Even though this mortality conferred nothing else, it has done this benefit to Christians… that we begin gladly to desire martyrdom as we learn not to fear death. These are trainings for us, not deaths: they give the mind the glory of fortitude; by contempt of death they prepare for the crown (Treatise VII).
Like Lazarus’ friends and like Jesus himself, we can, and should, and will tell God of our longing for the sick to be made well and for all those who hunger and thirst to be filled. There may even turn out to be a miraculous answer, some cure that mends, however belatedly, all in our world that has been broken. But to us Jesus says, “I am the resurrection and the life, those who believe in me, even though they die, will live” (John 11:25), and we would be as mistaken as Martha if we thought Christian hope was for our old lives back, our old economies and all their illusions. Pandemics remind us what we cannot help but know: our lives end in death. But Cyprian shows us a way forward, how even death cannot keep us from God.
“Innocence is so fragile, so curious, so dumb. Choosing God cannot be the same thing as staying innocent. If it is, there is no hope for any of us” (Barbara Brown Taylor, Speaking of Sin, 46-47). “If you, O LORD, should mark iniquities, Lord, who could stand?” (Psalm 130:3)
God is not rendered helpless by the disasters that we make and are. The first time we broke the world, God made a way forward, straight through sin. When we don’t know what to do, we might try walking the well worn road of repentance that saints have traveled before us in times of both plenty and pestilence. They tell us that path leads to paradise and to the kingdom.
One thing that might help us find our way is to remember what things we place on the communion table. The communion feast is not grain and clusters of grapes, but bread and a cup of wine. Among all the things that the Eucharist is, it also shows this: once the fruit has been plucked from the tree, once innocence is lost and everything broken, we do not pretend it is only the untouched thing that is holy. Instead the grain and the grapes are shattered and crushed, like evil and the serpent under our heels. They, like we, are fermented and die until Christ in his mercy drinks death to its dregs.
Even as we do everything we can to save lives and bring back life as we knew it, may our final hope lie not in that partial repair, but in being transformed, even now, into bodies that breathe by the Spirit of God. Whatever death or turmoil finds us, may we daily repent, turning to Christ who will feed us his flesh and fill our cup with new wine, wine that gladdens the heart and is poured out for the life of the world.