Monday, March 27, 2017

Dry Bones, Lazarus, and Other Silliness

I have a pastor friend whose initial sermon, when he is called to a new church, is an exegesis of Ezekiel 37:1-4: the valley of the dry bones.

His point, of course, is that God is the God of Life and no creature is too dead for God.

But that’s just silly for many of us modern cynics. Doctors, cops, funeral directors, pastors, game wardens and anyone who passes a dead raccoon on the street can see it plain: dead is dead.

The image of long dead bones sprouting sinews and flesh is macabre enough to make us smile. The silliness is captured in Dennis Potter’s Singing Detective, a 1986 BBC serial drama. Potter is known for creating scenes in which his characters burst inexplicably into songs of the 1920s and 1930s. In the opening scenes of the show, the title character, played by Michael Gambon, is suffering from psoriatic arthropathy. His suffering makes him delusional as he tries to follow a discussion among his doctors.

The scene captures the silliness perfectly: spontaneous rejuvenation is a ridiculous notion.

The raising of Lazarus is no doubt intended to celebrate the power of Jesus to raise the dead, which is no mean parlor trick. Water to wine, sight to the blind, new life to lepers, new legs to the lame – these are all impressive undertakings indeed. But restoring life to dead people? Isn’t that going a bit too far?

There are other instances in the Gospels in which Jesus raised to life people who were pronounced dead. In Mark 5:41, he raised Jairus’ daughter after the know-it-all neighbors said she was dead, but Jesus said the child was “not dead but sleeping.” 

Death was far more convincing in the case of Lazarus who had been dead for four days and whose entombed body, in the plain words of the Authorized Version, had commenced to “stinketh.” 

But Jesus was not deterred by this seemingly insurmountable fact, and he stood at the entrance to the tomb and shouted, “Lazarus, come forth!”

John reports, “The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, ‘Unbind him, and let him go.’” (John 11:44)

But from that point on, Lazarus disappears from the bible. It is left entirely to our imagination what Lazarus did or what he looked like after the grave cloths were removed. 

Many artists have tried to imagine it, including one illustrator who drew the story of Jesus for a Sunday school comic book when I was a kid. Lazarus is portrayed emerging zombie-like from the tomb, his India-inked face a study in sadness and puzzlement. This cartooned Lazarus did not look in the least bit pleased to snatched from his eternal rest and forced back into the unblinking light of day.

Indeed, why would he?

Death is at the top of most lists of things we fear, far ahead of hurricanes and lightning and root canals. We spend much of our lives pondering death’s mysteries and worrying about the pain and terror that may accompany it. The horrifying chasm is always before us, and we deal with death by putting it out of our minds and hoping it will be a long time before we have to face it.

But face it we will. And what a relief it must be to get beyond that abyss once and for all, to whatever lies beyond it. Our faith teaches us that what lies on the other side is bliss and peace and closeness to God’s love. And once we are there, why on earth would we want to return to life, only to face death all over again?

Was Jesus thinking about Lazarus’ feelings when he snatched him back to life?

According to the Gospel writer, Jesus was thinking about his audience.

“Jesus said to Martha, ‘Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?’ So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, ‘Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.’” (John 11:40-42)

There are two basic points of view about what happened after Lazarus came forth.

One, by Nikos Kazantzakis in The Last Temptation of Christ, is horrifying. I remember reading the passage as a high school student – in fact, I’ll never forget the dismay and revulsion I felt.
Fatigued and reticent, Lazarus sat in the darkest corner of the house, for light bothered him. His legs, arms and belly were swollen and green, like those of a four-day corpse. His bloated face was cracked all over and it exuded a yellowish-white liquid which soiled the white shroud which he continued to wear: it had stuck to his body and could not be removed. In the beginning he had stunk terribly, and those who came close held their noses; but little by little the stench had decreased, until now he smelled only of earth and incense. From time to time he shifted his hand and removed the grass which had become tangled in his hair and beard. His sisters Martha and Mary were cleansing him of the soil and of the small earthworms which had attached themselves to him. A sympathetic neighbor had brought him a chicken, and old Salome, squatting by the fireplace, was at present boiling it so that the resurrected man could drink the broth and regain his strength.

This, of course, is not the image John intended to convey. But it is an image that seems realistic enough if one considers something more terrible than death: that is, to die, and inexplicably re-live, and die again.

The bible is silent about all this, leaving it to church tradition to fill in the gaps.

As far as the Orthodox Christian tradition goes, Lazarus lived 30 years after his resurrection but never smiled because of his memory of all the unredeemed souls he had met in Hades. Missionaries Paul and Barnabas named him bishop of Kition, present day Larnaka on Cyprus. The Church of St. Lazarus is erected over what is believed to be his second and last tomb.

According to Roman Catholic tradition, Lazarus, Mary, and Martha were forced into a rudderless floating vessel by anti-Christian Jews and ended up in Provence, France. Lazarus is said to have become the Bishop of Marseille, where his beheading prompted his second death. A skull believed to be is severed head is venerated by the faithful in Marseilles.

There is even a church tradition that Lazarus is the author of the fourth Gospel, which he wrote under the pseudonym of John, the “disciple Jesus loved,” who was well known to Lazarus.

Regardless of which tradition – if any – you choose, it’s hard to dismiss the question of whether Lazarus could have been better off finishing his life among sisters and family and friends who loved him. He was, after all, high on the short list of persons Jesus knew and loved on earth, and it’s hard to imagine a more successful life than that; and even harder to think of a good reason for re-crossing the abyss to gamble on a new life that could improve on the old one.

Throughout the centuries, Christians have exuded an odd fixation with death and the remains of the dead. Roman Catholics who grew up venerating relics of saints may not fully appreciate the extent to which Protestant and agnostics are bewildered by the practice. To many in that non-Catholic contingency The Onion describes as “the hell-bound,” the relics seem inconsonant with the idea that the soul advances to glory as the body decays into worthless dust. As a young chaplain’s assistant in the Air Force, I would touch the sliver of saint’s bone or tooth embedded in altar cloths and shudder. It seemed more macabre to me than life affirming.

I had the same feeling visiting ancient cathedrals in Europe that hosted the bodies of “The Incorruptibles,” dead saints so honored by God that their bodies never decay. 

When Father McManus explained the phenomenon to me, I entered the crypts expecting to see rosy cheeks and moist lips. The Incorruptibles looked like ordinary mummies to me, and I would listen with lonely perplexity as Catholic friends expressed awe at what they saw: unblemished preservation. Why was I so blind? I concluded you had to be Catholic to see it.

More recently, Martha and I took daughters Katherine and Victoria to Rome where relics of many saints are prominently displayed – too prominently for Victoria, who held back as Martha and I knelt to pray in front of the body of Pope John XXIII. The good pope’s body is perfectly preserved but Vatican guides point out it’s because of excellent embalming, not a miracle.
But old memories of the Incorruptibles often flash through my dreams each Halloween, and what could be more perfect reminders of the permanence of death than the apparition of malodorous Lazarus wandering haplessly out of his tomb?

As Easter approaches it is good to turn our attention to the point Jesus was making when he raised Lazarus. Indeed, it’s the same point that should be foremost in our minds when touching saintly relicts or contemplating the discarded bodies that once held saintly souls: death is not the end of the story.

As Martha stood before Jesus, weeping because her brother had died, he made the point even clearer. 
“Jesus said to her, ‘Your brother will rise again.’ Martha said to him, ‘I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.’ Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.’” (John 11:23-27)

With a smidgeon of faith, Easter is God’s assurance that as fascinated as we may be by the images of death that enfold us, and as silly as the notion may be, death is not the end of the story. Because our God is indeed the God of Life. 

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Jesus, When You Wink At Me My Heart Goes Boom

Six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany …Then Mary took about a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. John 12:1-3
This is one of four biblical accounts of a woman slouching toward Jesus to anoint his head or feet with very expensive oil. 

Every time I heard these stories discussed in Sunday church school, they were quickly divided into two categories:

One, how perceptive is the woman (whoever she is) to recognize Jesus as the Son of God; and, two, how shortsighted are the disciples (namely Judas) to look upon the act as a waste of money.

That was the approach I expected the Rev. James Martin, S.J., to take when he referred to the stories during a recent lecture about his book Jesus: A Pilgrimage.

Instead, Martin asked: “Was Jesus turned on?”

Given that Jesus was equal parts God and Human, it’s a fair question. And the answer is unavoidable: yes, no doubt. It’s one of the inescapable realities of Incarnational Theology. 

If Jesus the man was tempted in all things – and presuming his human side was straight male – his hormones would have vied fiercely with his God side. As the woman’s shining face presses moistly toward him and he feels her warm breath on his weary feet, the God in him exults, “Bless you, dear child, for your chaste and pious devotion.” The human in him chokes back the words, “Hey, baby, come here often?”

It’s difficult for most of us to think of Jesus as being thoroughly human as well as wholly God. We can see the scriptural evidence that Jesus laughed, cried, hungered, enjoyed wine, and occasionally ate to satiation. Father Martin also points out that Jesus the Human must have suffered headaches, painful sunburn, blisters on his feet, episodes of projectile vomiting and violent diarrhea. He may also – since God is not known to have made a special dispensation for him – had nocturnal emissions. And he probably enjoyed them.

I may be crossing a line in stating my assumptions about just how human Jesus was. Indeed I fear Mrs. Montefiore, my childhood Sunday school teacher, would have been aghast to realize Jesus’ underarm odor carried the same pheromones as Mr. Montefiore. But these are the challenging veracities of Incarnational Theology.

It’s difficult to face these realities and many congregations never acknowledge them. This may be one reason millennials (adults born after 1980) are leaving the church in droves. The Jesus we have tried to present to them is a two-dimensional Barbie Doll replete with pious promises but bereft of the human flesh that makes him credible as God incarnate. If Jesus didn’t battle with his hormones and his headaches the same way we do, how can we be sure that God really understands what it’s like to be us? 

It is undeniably difficult for many Christians to understand the union of body and soul. For one thing, it’s usually the body that causes people to sin so we try to keep it as far away from our souls as possible. 

This diminution of our physicality crops up in unexpected ways. A lot of us don’t like to think of our pastors, priests, nuns, or bishops as real humans because we expect them to be spiritual creatures.

When a pope gets sick, for example, it’s hard for the faithful to know how to pray. In the 1970s, when Pope Paul VI had his prostate removed, the actual procedure – whether retropubic or perineal – was too horrible to contemplate for a pope. When a reporter suggested to a physician that the pope’s prostate problem could be a teaching moment for millions of other men, the doctor suggested that one way of maintaining prostate health was masturbation. No doubt this was an opportunity Pope Paul overlooked, but it may have been helpful news for others. I remember discussing this revelation with my friend Joe Leonard, a Baptist clergyman, who wondered if the Boy Scouts should create a merit badge for Onan (Genesis 38:8-10).

An awareness of the humanity of Jesus greatly expands our appreciation of the Gospel stories.
The Common Lectionary’s Lenten attention focus on Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well is a good example. (John 4:5-42)

In the story, Jesus is tired and thirsty after a long walk to the Samaritan city of Sychar. There, he sits on the edge of Jacob’s Well and waits.

A Samaritan woman – a member of a tribe the Jews considered despicable and inferior – walks to the well. Unexpectedly, Jesus asks her for a drink.

This violates Jewish human customs on several levels. But Jesus is actually displaying his Godly insights by conversing with a member of a group the Jews hated, and a woman at that, an inferior being in a rigidly patriarchal society. But God-Jesus sees the woman as a beloved and valued creature as precious as all other women and men in God’s family.

God-Jesus also perceives that the woman will be receptive to astonishing news. He announces that he is the conveyor of the living water of eternal life, and he entrusts the woman with the news that he is God’s promised messiah. God-Jesus also demonstrates God’s intimacy with all God’s creatures by unveiling deep secrets of the women’s life only God can know, including a string of past husbands. John’s Gospel leaves no doubt that the Samaritan woman has been chosen by God-Jesus as a suitable apostle to begin the proclamation of his messiahship. Her meeting with Jesus at the well was no accident. It was God-ordained.

Then again, there may also be an element of human-Jesus in the encounter. The Spanish artist Julio Romero de Torres (November 9, 1874 – May 10, 1930) thought he saw something else going on. His painting of Christ and the Samaritan Woman (above) departs from the conventional pieties of religious art. The woman is young and desirable. Jesus presses against her almost seductively, keen to seize her attention and win her trust, eager to reveal a secret that will change history forever, and – could it be – leaning close enough to smell her hair and feel her warmth?

The passage requires a lot of re-reading to see if those elements actually exist. And Romero de Torres’ paintings suggests an obsession with eroticism. Google him if you must, but persons under 14 should be accompanied by an adult.

Father James Martin does us a great service by reminding us that Jesus was human and “tempted in all things,” just as we are tempted. To know this is to know Jesus better, because we come to realize that Jesus knows what we go through every day: our pains and discomforts, our fears, our frustrations, and our perpetual temptations.

But, as theologians have also been reminding us for two millennia, Jesus differs from us in one all-important way: he never succumbed to temptation. He was a human without sin, a human who never strayed from God Creator or rejected God’s will for him.

That makes Jesus unique among all of God’s creation. 
Jesus struggled every day with the same temptations that that threaten to drown us. 

And in renewing our awareness of his humanness, we may find ourselves more powerfully drawn to his God-ness, and the eternal font of unconditional love. 

It also puts our own humanness and fleshly temptations in a clearer perspective.

C.S. Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity, “The sins of the flesh are bad, but they are the least bad of all sins.” 
Lewis wrote, “All the worst pleasures are purely spiritual: the pleasure of putting other people in the wrong, of bossing and patronizing and spoiling sport, and back-biting, the pleasures of power, of hatred. For there are two things inside me, competing with the human self which I must try to become. They are the Animal self, and the Diabolical self. The Diabolical self is the worse of the two. That is why a cold, self-righteous prig who goes regularly to church may be far nearer to hell than a prostitute.”
Of course, Lewis added, it’s better to be neither.

Jesus encouraged us by his own example to enjoy the pleasures of the flesh, if not its sins.

If that helps us become more generously loving and less diabolically priggish, we owe it to a deeper understanding of Jesus’ human side. The side that was more like us than we have dared imagine.