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. 

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