Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Emptied Graves

Saint James Fordham • Easter Day • Tobias Haller BSG
Seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.+

Easter Day dawns for us as a great day of rejoicing. We wake up and get dressed in our Sunday best, some of it new and some of it old, but all of it special. We get ready for church knowing the liturgy will have some wonderful music, that the Easter lilies and hyacinths will be decorating the church, and that the festival day will truly be well-hailed. It is a holiday of holidays, a wonderful day whatever the weather is like, though planned always to come at the beginning of spring.

But it wasn’t like that the first Easter Day. When Mary Magdalene made her slow and weary way to the tomb that morning, she wasn’t wearing her Sunday best. She probably hadn’t changed her clothes from the night before. She wasn’t heading to a festival celebration, but to a lonely and solitary funeral, to weep by the tomb, as Mary and Martha of Bethany had wept by the tomb of their brother Lazarus, as people have been weeping at tombs and grave-sides for tens of thousands of years. Since prehistoric times people have buried their dead with flowers and tears and ceremony, and marked the spot with everything from a simple pile of stones to the great pyramids.

There is something consoling about visiting a grave. I remember those trips to the cemetery from my childhood. Usually on a Sunday afternoon, we’d pile in the car and head out to the cemetery, flowers in hand, to visit the graves of grandparents and uncles and aunts, great aunts and great uncles, most of whom I’d never known — their names familiar from being heard spoken of, names I shared with some of them, a last name or a Christian name, but names to which I could attach no face other than the ones in the photo album, names familiar and yet distant, carved in stone or on a brass plaque, but not known by me in living flesh and blood.

But for those who had know them, to be able to stand for a moment in those spots, and to remember, and to mourn — this is consolation, a momentary sense of connection with the one who has died.

So imagine for a moment the desolation that pierced the heart of Mary Magdalene, and later of Simon Peter and the beloved disciple as they saw the empty tomb. They knew the body ought to have been there — they saw the body of their Lord laid in the tomb themselves. And yet now, it was — gone! What a horrible thing to greet them; what cruelty to rob them even of the chance to offer a final farewell to their beloved Lord. Who could possibly have done such a terrible thing, as to steal a body from its tomb!

The wonderful Tiffany window at the north side of the church, entitled “The Easter Morn” sums it all up. It has always amazed me how daring Mr Tiffany’s design of the weeping Magdalen is, how he risked piling up the glass and pigment to be so dark and thick that even when the window is lit by the full rays of the sun, the figure of Mary Magdalen in desolation at the tomb is still be too dark to make out completely, more of a sculpture than a window.

That is the desolation that Mary felt, there at the empty tomb. For Mary and Peter and the beloved disciple the empty tomb was not good news — it was just an empty tomb, a second loss of their beloved Lord, lost from life, and now lost from death.

You see, they had yet to realize the truth of the resurrection. All they could realize at this point was the shock and horror of a desecration, the aftermath of a stolen body, an insult added to an injury. Novelist Iris Murdoch described this feeling with a wonderfully painful phrase, “a blow upon a bruise.” Instead of a place in which to mourn and remember, they were left with an overturned stone, an empty hole, a few scraps of linen cloth, and a sense of desolation that robbed them even of the small comfort that mourning brings. Who could do such a thing?

It was almost beyond belief: and the disciples didn’t believe Mary when she first brought them the terrible news, news not of resurrection, but of grave-robbery. Only when the disciples saw for themselves did they believe Mary’s story — not that he had been raised from the dead, but only that his body was gone, stolen from the tomb — for at this point, as John tells us, they still did not “understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead.” All they knew was that someone had stolen the body of their beloved friend.

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What is that emptiness like? With a heart and stomach as empty as the tomb, what does it feel like to have even this small comfort taken away? On how many windswept coasts throughout the world are there monuments to sailors lost at sea, empty tombs that mark the absence of a loved one? How many war memorials stand in our cities and squares to commemorate soldiers dead and buried half-way around the world, in graves their families may never see? How many young faces peer out of pictures on the sides of milk cartons and billboards, lost and missing children whose absence is felt like a wound that will not heal, like a continued battering against a heart already numb with grief. How many dear ones’ bodies are there never to be recovered from the tragedy of 9-11, how many vaporized in an instant by the flames of hatred, crushed to dust beneath the weight of malice? How many who are now simply as if they never were, only photographs remaining, last voicemail messages retained for those left behind to hear, and remember, and weep; but with no place to go to other than a memorial or a monument, unable even to say for sure, “Here my beloved one rests”?

The angels ask Mary Magdalen, “Why are you weeping?” And Mary thinks, Don’t they know? How can they be so cruel? How can they mock my grief? “They have taken his body!” Jesus asks her the same question, and Mary’s eyes are so filled with tears, tears of grief and anger and desperation, that she cannot even see who it is that asks the question. Her only hope is that perhaps he knows something — perhaps it is all a mistake and this stranger may even be the one responsible.

But finally, he says her name, Mary! And with that one word, all her grief, all the wounding of the cross, all the desolation and anguish of the empty tomb, is wiped away. The empty spot where her heart had been is suddenly filled with a joy so great she cannot contain herself, and she reaches out to him — he who is her Teacher and ours, her Lord and our Lord, the true and only and living Son of her Father and our Father, of her God and our God.

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The same joy awaits us, that same Easter joy of which our celebration today is only a rehearsal for the real thing that awaits us at the end of time. On that great day we shall each be called by name, and see through our tears our Risen Lord holding out his wounded hands to us. And with him we will find all who have gone before, all the grandparents and uncles and aunts, and fathers and mothers, and all the sailors lost at sea and the soldiers buried far from home, and the comfortless widows now comforted, and the children lost and slain in innocence, and those killed by the flames of hate, and those crushed by the weight of malice, and the spirits of the righteous made perfect.

This, my beloved sisters and brothers in Christ — in the Risen Christ — is what we are called to set our minds upon this Easter Day. Not on the things of earth, the empty tombs and comfortless griefs, the unhealed wounds and inconsolable hearts, the continued strife, the unending battles — but upon the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God, where we are hidden with him, and in him, until that great day comes, when Christ who is our life will be revealed, and we also will be revealed with him in glory. For the earth will give up its dead, and the sea its dead, and the graves will be opened — all of them emptied at last! And we shall be raised, incorruptible, to see the Lord in his glory and to live with him for ever and ever. Alleluia, the Lord is risen, The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia.+

Monday, March 10, 2008

Dry Bones

SJF • Lent 5a • Tobias Haller BSG

The Lord set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?”

Well, here it is the Fifth Sunday in Lent and already we are beginning to get hints of what is to come on Easter — the resurrection of the dead. We hear Saint Paul’s reminder to the Romans, to which I referred two weeks ago: that the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life. And Ezekiel and John present us with two very explicit and compelling images of death and life. The prophet tells of being set down in the midst of something that looks like it came right out of a horror movie, a valley full of dry human bones — all that’s missing is the Terminator’s metal foot crunching up the skulls; and the evangelist shocks us with what must have been an equally terrifying moment for the crowd of people gathered at that tomb, as the mummy-like figure of Lazarus emerges still tied and wrapped in the linen bands of death.

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These are vivid images and powerful testimonies in part because they go against our common sense everyday experience of life and death. Death we have seen; but resurrection is not in our actual experience. Who among us here has not lost a friend or relative to death? Who among us has not known that empty feeling, and the knowledge that things don’t work the other way — the way they are described in these biblical passages this morning? The film doesn’t run backwards. Dead people don’t come walking out of their graves; the doors on the fancy mausoleums up at Woodlawn never get opened from the inside. Skeletons don’t put on flesh and stand up to take a breath of fresh air. This is just not the way things work.

And yet, in spite of our experience — or perhaps I should say in this case our lack of experience — still we have this faith that this will not always be the way of things. Still we have this faith that death is not in fact the end, and that the miraculous events of which we hear from prophets and evangelists alike are still awaiting us out there at some future time when the world is fully redeemed and reborn through the grace of God in Jesus Christ.

And why is it so? Why do we believe in the resurrection of the dead — since none of us have actually seen it happen? What is it that gives us this sense that there is more to life than just this one go-round. You know, Christianity isn’t the only religious tradition that teaches that there is more to life than just a “once-through and then you’re done.” It isn’t even only the three religious traditions deriving from the faith of Abraham — Judaism, Christianity, and Islam — that teach there is a life in the world to come. Even ancient pagan Greek philosophers believed in the immortality of the soul; and the Egyptians built their pyramids and wrapped their mummies with a purpose, not just to kill time — or to ensure full employment or a big government budget! The Brahmans and the Buddhists believe in reincarnation, and the Confucians honor their ancestors as if they were still alive. Very few people who have walked this good earth of ours have ever believed that “this is it and that’s the end.”

But why? Is it just our sense that it simply isn’t fair; that it’s like taking children to a wonderful amusement park and then telling them they can only have one ticket for one ride and then you have to leave? Is it just wish fulfillment, just a forlorn hope in an outmoded faith? Well if it is, then we are, as Saint Paul said to the Corinthians, “of all people the most to be pitied”!

There is, of course, the other possibility — and it is why we are here instead of sleeping late on a Sunday morning, especially having lost an hour to Daylight Savings Time — or sitting at home reading the Sunday Times. It is because of faith, and because of hope — faith and hope in things we have not seen, things reported to us from thousands of years ago that we have no reason to believe except our own inner conviction, that feeling you get deep inside when you know something is right. And it is the source of that inner conviction of which I wish to speak — for it is the source of that inner conviction that gives breath and life to the dry bones of what might otherwise simply be a doctrine, the source of that faith that moves us beyond the Scripture itself into the life which the Scripture promises — just as the story of the valley of dry bones is itself much more than a historical episode — it is a prophetic vision of how God works and is at work even now.

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When the Spirit of God sets Ezekiel down in that valley of dry bones, God challenges the prophet with a question, much as we are challenged. “Mortal, can these bones live?” The prophet’s answer, if it were based on his own experience, would likely have been, “Of course not. Dead people stay dead; that’s what death means. After a few days the body begins to stink and decay; and as for these dead here in this valley, well they’ve been dead so long the flesh has long since turned to dust.”

Thus Ezekiel could have answered in the practical fashion of Mary and Martha in our gospel. Mary shows her anguished disappointment that it is too late: that if only Jesus had come sooner he might have prevented this death. And Martha, as much as she believes in Jesus, and the eventual resurrection of the dead, right then and there she reminds Jesus that her brother’s body is four days dead, and ripe.

Ezekiel, however, is a prophet. He knows that God is up to more than simply planting him in a valley of dry bones and asking him a question to which a negative answer seems obvious. No, God is clearly up to something, and so, as a prophet — or as some might say an astute politician — rather than answering yes or no Ezekiel says to God, “You know.”

And indeed, God does know; and commands Ezekiel to begin to prophesy, and the bones come together just like in the old song, shin-bone to knee-bone to thighbone, with a whole lot of rattling! And then comes the sinewy cartilage and then the fleshy muscles and finally skin covering them all nice and neat and newly packaged like fresh-made sausages in their casings.

But they are still as dead as sausages. The bodies are reconstructed, but there is no life in them. Something is missing. God knows it and Ezekiel knows it. And just as Jesus speaks at the tomb of Lazarus, not out of his own need, but for the sake of those standing by, so God commands Ezekiel one more time, to prophesy to the wind from the four corners of the earth to enter and literally to inspire those bodies and bring them to life.

This breath, this inspiration, this spirit is the missing element, the spirit of faith and of hope that lifts up and revivifies people who claim their bones are dried up, and their hope is lost, and that they are cut off completely from any future, hopeless and faithless.

The breath that brings them back to life is the spirit of faith and hope that fills us with the knowledge of the truth of God’s call from death to life. This is the spirit of faith and hope that fills that gap in our experience of the world — a world in which we have yet to see a resurrection — and yet convicts us in our heart of hearts with an assurance so deep that nothing can shake it.

This is the Spirit of life and inspiration that fills us when we take up the Scripture — its pages are as dry and lifeless as the bones in the valley. But they can come to life as the Spirit flows through our hearts and our minds as we encounter their testimony: and by faith and hope are raised from the dead. This is, in the long run, the difference between the pagans and us: God has given all humanity a glimpse of the truth that this is not the end, but has given to us a written Word in the Scripture, and what is more, a living Word in Jesus Christ — whom we encounter as we worship in Spirit and in Truth.

It is nothing less than the Spirit of God himself that is within us that gives us life. It is nothing less than the Spirit of God himself that teaches us truths of which no mere mortal experience can instruct us. This Holy Spirit teaches us that if God can give life to our mortal bodies by means of the earthly breath we first take in when the doctor or midwife holds us up and gives us a good slap to shock us into mortal life — how much more will God’s own Spirit give new life to our immortal bodies by the spiritual breath that rushes upon us and calls us from our graves. Even in the midst of Lent, this is our Easter hope and Easter faith, which we proclaim as true not because we have seen it, but because God’s Spirit has been poured into our hearts to ratify the testimony of the Scripture that it is true — the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

As God said to Ezekiel, it is by the Spirit we shall know that God has spoken and acted. What now we discern in the Scripture and hope for in our lives, what now we hold by faith, we shall then behold in earnest, as called from our graves by the powerful Spiritof the one who calls us forth, we take full possession of the new life promised us in Jesus Christ our Lord — the promise fulfilled, the bonds of death dissolved, so that, unbound and free, we will rejoice and live with him for ever and ever.+