Dear Friends, The readings this week are timely, speaking as they do of life and death, and a foretaste of the resurrection of Christ yet to come. Our Lenten journey this year has been disrupted and without the joy and discipline of meeting together we may be feeling disconnected from the milestones and waymarks which normally lead us through this time. Sadly there will be some who have lost loved ones, for whom this is a particularly raw and brutal time. This Sunday, Passiontide begins, when we start our journey to the Cross (and then on to the empty tomb). The readings before us are not easy – the Gospel is quite long – and deal with difficult issues and emotions which we will all recognise. But do take the time to read them thoughtfully, and notice when something strikes you as surprising or discomfiting or revelatory. As you reflect on your responses to the readings, you might wonder what God is saying to you. I have picked out three things on which to reflect, which have resonated with me over the last few days.
Tombs of despair Jesus went to the tomb where Lazarus had been laid and cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” Jesus then told the people to “Unbind him, and let him go.” All of us have been instructed to stay at home – only leaving home to exercise once a day, or go shopping for essential items, or travel to and from work when absolutely necessary. And new phrases have entered our everyday conversation: ‘social distancing’, ‘self-isolation’ and ‘shielding’. Those who fall in this last category have been told not to leave their homes at all…for twelve weeks. We all understand the need to keep everyone safe, yet there is inevitably an underlying sense of anxiety, frustration and fear. Indeed some have expressed anger at the loss of freedom, spontaneity and independence. It is not easy to be closed up in our homes. I have to say it felt so counter intuitive to close and lock the doors of our churches.
A weeping God “Jesus began to weep” There are some who might ask why Jesus wept when he knew that Lazarus would be resurrected, and some who asked “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” There are those who argue that an all-powerful God is necessarily impassible ie. incapable of suffering or feeling pain. However, we see in 1 John 4:8 that God is love, and I believe we need to revisit popular notions of power and love. In his book ‘Love’s Endeavour, Love’s Expense’ W.H Vanstone suggests that authentic love may be described as limitless, precarious, and vulnerable; that love acts for and responds to the other. D. Day Williams argues that “[t]here can be no love without suffering. Suffering in its widest sense means the capacity to be acted upon, to be changed, moved, transformed by the action of or in relation to another” (The Spirit and the Forms of Love). Jesus sees Mary’s grief and is moved to tears. Jesus sees despair, feels the struggle of what it is to be human, and knows that this struggle and suffering is what he is moving towards. So should we be surprised that his heart breaks, for Mary and Martha, for us, and that Jesus weeps? We too, are called to love like this; to walk alongside those who are hurting, to help, to comfort, to listen. And yes, to let the tears fall – we are in good company.
Desolate communities – can these bones live? Israel – a people in exile, no temple, economy in ruins. ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’ Ezekiel is called to prophesy; yet what can be said to any community in pain, whose people are suffering, where hope is fading, and fear is spreading? Ezekiel is called to prophesy the words that God tells him to speak. And yes these bones can live, communities can find hope, people can discover new creative ways of being.
During the last few days we have spoken on the phone more often; skyped or facetimed one another to share a coffee, to see grandchildren; made and sent amusing videos with birthday wishes (!); put rainbow pictures in windows; delivered birthday surprises; illuminated a church spire and houses; set up community support schemes which collected prescriptions and delivered shopping; meditated and prayed and worshipped ‘together’ in our homes; tended our gardens; tidied cupboards and garages; read, and done jigsaws and played musical instruments; rescued hedgehogs; clapped and cheered our NHS; had real, honest conversations; found out more about ourselves than we might have wanted to… We can do all these things and more, and that is good and positive. But remember that God tells Ezekiel to prophesy to the breath, the ruach, the life-giving Spirit of God. This is what is essential to bring new life: “…the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude… I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live.”
Yes, these bones can live. We can be unbound and freed from tombs of despair. There are difficult days ahead, but our God continues to walk with us and the power of love will sustain us. May our hearts be open to the infilling of God’s life giving Spirit. Amen.
A prayer of St. Benedict O gracious and holy Father, give us wisdom to perceive you, diligence to seek you, patience to wait for you, eyes to behold you, a heart to meditate upon you, and a life to proclaim you, through the power of the spirit of Jesus Christ our Lord.
Collect Gracious Father, you gave up your Son out of love for the world: lead us to ponder the mysteries of his passion, that we may know eternal peace through the shedding of our Saviour’s blood, Jesus Christ our Lord.