The Gospel for this Sunday – the Fifth of Lent – features Jesus raising Lazarus, the brother of Martha and Mary, from the dead. When he sees the body of his dead friend, the reality of loss hits Jesus and he weeps. There is no record (that I know) of Jesus laughing but here (for the only time?) he cries. Reflecting on this, I cannot help thinking of all those weeping today – not least those heartbroken at the loss or impending death of loved ones. It’s a reminder that the same Jesus who wept in solidarity with Mary and Martha is in solidarity with us in our tears and, especially, with all who suffer at this time.
I am choosing also to reflect on the First Reading for this Sunday which the Church has chosen to complement the Lazarus story. The prophet’s vision inspired the old Negro Spiritual ‘Dry Bones’.
The Prophet Ezekiel 37:12-14
“The Lord says this ‘I am now going to open your graves; I mean to raise you from your graves, my people, and lead you back to the soil of Israel. And you will know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves and raise you from your graves, my people. And I shall put my spirit in you, and you will live, and I shall resettle you on your own soil; and you will know that I, the Lord, have said and done this’ – it is the Lord who speaks.”
Context (from Dom Henry Wansbrough)
At the darkest moment of Israel’s history, when the people are hopeless exiles in Babylon, having been deported there in 597 BC, the prophet Ezekiel foretells a rebirth. In his vision, of which we read only three paltry verses, he sees a valley full of dead bones. The Lord commands him to breathe on them, and in Hebrew the same word is used for breath and Spirit. So when Ezekiel breathes on these bones he breathes the enlivening Spirit of the Lord. The bones come together, are covered with flesh and sinews, and become ‘a great, an immense army’. The prophet is foretelling the rebirth of the people as a nation, prophesying that they will return [from exile] to life once again in their own land.
The prophet is promising restoration and new life for his people, the very thing we – individuals and the nation – long for, hope for and even pray for at this time. We too are experiencing ‘exile’ – physical separation from families, fellow parishioners and friends – and also undergoing a separation or alienation from a way of life we never expected to disappear. Will things ever be the same again? If not, what form will this ‘new life’ take?
After the lockdown ends, will I just return to old ways? Or will this experience of exile change me? The Old Testament prophets, like Ezekiel, taught that God was with them in their exile. Can I see that God is with me in my isolation and exile? What is God teaching me now about myself and my relationship with others, as circumstances force me to be separated from them? If God is to breathe on my old bones, what form of resurrection and ‘new life’ do I want? And, crucially, do I trust that whatever happens to me in the weeks ahead, all is in God’s hands?
The words of St Julian and Norwich come to mind: all shall be well, all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.
Jesus, you wept at the tomb of your friend Lazarus. As we face the mystery of sickness and death, our own and that of those we love, help us to place our trust in you, the resurrection and the life. Amen.
Breathe on me, Breath of God. Fill me with life anew,
That I may love what thou dost love, and do what thou dost do.
Holy Name, Jesmond
29 March 2020