We say: “Our bones are dried up and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely. God says: “I am going to open your graves. I will put my spirit in you and you shall live.”
Sometimes, when I think about death, I feel panic-y with grief and fear. At other times, I’m calm, curious, philosophical. Always, though, I’m aware of the mystery. I wonder what dying is like. I want to know, is the separation final, or will we see each other again? I hope that the person, the unique “me” or “you” can endure even when the body crumbles. But maybe we simply become one again with God, with the universe. “Keep death daily before your eyes,” St. Benedict instructed in his “rule” for the Benedictine community. Death is our constant companion, Benedict reminds us. And it is only when we acknowledge death’s centrality, he argues, that we can truly live well.
The story of Lazarus might appear to be a one-time, Jesus-powered exception to the rules. He was dead and in the tomb for several days and then he was alive again. Depending on how you think about it, it’s intriguing, or amazing, or maybe just pretty darn gross. However, I believe that the story of Lazarus isn’t just about Lazarus. It is a piece of the narrative we live, as followers of Jesus. It is the story of a community told through the experience of one person. You see, Lazarus, in company with those others we’ve met during this Lenten season—the man born blind, the woman at the well—represent not just themselves but all the people who gathered around Jesus. They were Jews and Samaritans, men and women, people with disabilities and sicknesses. Overwhelmingly, they were landless poor peasants, exploited and crushed by the Roman Empire. Lazarus’ illness and death is a symbol of the marginalization and abandonment of the Jesus community. The religious authorities who eventually seek Jesus’ death have turned away from hearing the voices and serving the needs of their people. Instead, out of fear or greed, they have collaborated with the oppressors who are robbing others of their life and freedom.
Death is a spiritual reality even as it is a physical one. Nora McInerny had a miscarriage, lost her father and buried her husband all within a few weeks. She explains her podcast, “Terrible, Thanks for Asking,” this way: “You know how every day someone asks ‘How are you?’ And even if you’re totally dying inside, you just say ‘Fine,’ so everyone can go about their day? This show is just the opposite.” In the first episode, she talks about her own experience of grief:
Did you know that grief isn’t just crying? That grief isn’t just a facial expression or physical act? Did you know that a grieving person can do a lot of things like laugh and go to movies and grocery shop and raise a child, all while bleeding to death internally?… Well, now you know, so you won’t be surprised when it happens to you.
Turning again to Lazarus, it is not his resuscitation that is the most important event of the story. Jesus knew that though he was going to raise Lazarus, one day his friend would still die. He knew that loss and grief would continue to touch those he loved. That is why he wept. No, the high point of this story is Jesus’ command, “Unbind him and let him go.” In that moment, Lazarus and the community he represented were set free. Though they would still live, as we humans do, with death and grief, they were no longer bound by fear, no longer held captive by the deathly spirits of poverty and oppression. They were called into life in its fullness, life in the spirit of God. They were liberated.
Ironically, the raising of Lazarus to a life that is full and free is the incident that leads the authorities to seek Jesus’ death. They begin to conspire with the Romans to bind the liberator, to kill the one who is life itself. A conspiracy means, literally, in its Latin root, “a breathing together.” In our time, too, violence and greed, indifference and ignorance breathe together to create systems of oppression, mechanisms of death. After the president issued his executive order directing the EPA to end the clean power plan, Van Jones lamented: “[Our President] may have just signed a death warrant for our planet.”
Our leaders in the United Church of Christ said it this way: “Recent actions by the Administration to rollback environmental protections and responsible measures to address climate change are seen by us as a crime against humanity—an act that ensures the ongoing destruction of the planet and endangers future generations on whose behalf we are charged with stewarding God’s creation.”
The valley of the dry bones, in today’s passage from Ezekiel, symbolizes the spiritual death of a community—their holy city besieged and destroyed and many killed; those who remained forced from their homeland. In those traumatic days, the people lamented: “Our bones are dried up and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely. But God’s response reminds us that amid death’s conspiracies, life conspires too.
For example, this report was buried in the metro section of Saturday’s Star Tribune:
Christian Picciolini was barely old enough to drive when he was recruited into the country’s first neo-Nazi skinhead gang in Chicago. On Thursday, the former radical described to an interfaith audience at Minneapolis’ Temple Israel synagogue how he now helps others exit a movement he helped build more than 20 years ago…. He said his own recruitment came at the hands of a man who recognized his vulnerability and promised paradise. “I hated who I was, but I hated other people to remove that pain from myself,” Picciolini said…. Through a confidential online service called Exit USA, Picciolini’s group continues to counsel would-be radicals, relatives or people who recently left the movement. He said he doesn’t consider his team “deprogrammers” who parse ideological points. “We basically are filling potholes—we’re looking for the things in somebody’s life that cause them to veer off that path,” he said. “Whatever those potholes are, whether it’s a lack of education or poverty or mental health issues or trauma, we want help address those things and help people become more resilient.”
In this case, God’s story, the narrative by which we live, is told through the story of one person who has been liberated from spiritual death. Christian Picciolini came fully to life when learned to love himself and thereby found the strength to love others. He shows us the way that we are called to breathe together with God in these times. Death is a mystery that is always with us. Loss and grief is a part of our human story. But God is conspiring to free us from the bonds of spiritual death that hold us captive—the oppressions that marginalize us, and the greed and fear and violence through which we oppress others.
We say: “Our bones are dried up and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely. And God says: “I am going to open your graves. I will put my spirit in you and you shall live.”