Pastor Joe Britton
St. Michael’s Church
“Mortal, can these bones live?” (Ezekiel 37)
Given today’s lessons, you might think that it’s already Easter. The valley of dry bones reading from Ezekiel, for example, is one of the most vivid of the readings in the Great Vigil of Easter, as God commands the prophet to prophesy over the bones, that they may live (“Prophesy to these bones, and say to them that they shall live”); and then in the Gospel, we go to Bethany where we discover that the resurrection of the dead is already happening, when Jesus summons Lazarus out of the tomb, and he comes stiffly walking out, blinking incredulously at what is happening. It’s as though we’ve skipped right ahead to Easter itself!
In fact, this skipping around in the story of Jesus is at the very heart of its meaning. Just last Saturday, for instance, March 25, was the Feast of the Annunciation, celebrating the angel Gabriel’s announcement to Mary that she would conceive a child (its celebrated on March 25, because that is exactly nine months to the day before Christmas, and … well that’s obviously when it would have happened—fact are facts!). So right in the middle of Lent, when we are turning our faces toward Jerusalem and the crucifixion, we already hear the story starting to turn in upon itself, starting again at the beginning.
During Holy Week, which is just around the corner, we’ll have multiple instances of this twisting and turning of the narrative, one moment racing ahead, only to circle back again. Think of Palm Sunday, which is just next week. We first celebrate Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, only to race ahead to the events of Good Friday by reading the passion story; then by celebrating the Eucharist we have really skipped ahead to Easter itself, calling the risen Lord into our midst. No sooner than we have done that, however, than we depart in silence, as if moving back into the loneliness and foreboding of Gethsemane. It’s like the novel Hopscotch, by the Argentine writer Julio Cortázar, where at a chapter’s end there is a suggestion of another chapter you could skip ahead to—or back to—if you don’t want to continue reading sequentially.
One of my favorite examples of this narrative dance is the service of Tenebrae, often celebrated on Holy Wednesday. It is a service of darkness (“tenebrae” means shadows), and as lengthy psalms and readings of lament are read, the church is gradually drawn into the dark as candles are extinguished one by one. It’s as if the black clouds of Good Friday are descending. At the end, only a single candles remains lit, reminding us of the Paschal candle that is first lit on Easter morning at the Vigil. That one candle is carried out of the church, as if to burial: then, after a long silence, a great noise is made (which always makes everyone jump, even though you know it’s coming), symbolizing the earthquake of the resurrection, and the candle is brought back into the church, in whose light all disperse. So on the eve of the three Great Days, (the “Triduum” of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter), Tenebrae summarizes them all in a single service.
So before we ever start to tell the story, we already know how it ends. From a literary perspective, it’s not very good drama, because there’s no suspense.
But of course, that is exactly the point. God does not hold us in suspense, leaving us to wonder what the outcome of life is going to be. In Jesus, we have already been shown what lies ahead: forgiveness, mercy, resurrection, life (as he says in today’s gospel, “I am the resurrection and the life”—and so we know even now, that our lives “hid with Christ in God” as St. Paul wrote to the Colossians (Col 3:3).
And not only that, but our past too is also incorporated into Jesus, for he is the one who (as the woman at the well discovered) already knows us as we are. No secrets, and so nothing to hide.
So therein lies the good news: knowing us as we have been and as we are—warts and all—Jesus leads us beyond ourselves into a future which we already know will be shaped by his inexhaustible mercy and compassion. Jesus is the alpha and the omega, the beginning and end: and both our past and our future are to be found in him.
And this is the source of Christian hope: we know where our story ends, it ends in Jesus. There’s no suspense, no anxiety. Our story will not ultimately end in loneliness; nor in failure; not in disease or dementia; not in alienation and separation; not in depression or doubt. Our story ends in his light and love—whatever that turns out to be.
So we tell his story, which ultimately is our story, over and over again, year after year, knowing in advance where it ends. Yet paradoxically, we also never know what will come of its telling. For every time that we retell it, even though the story is the same, the meaning is new, relevant to the moment. If when we tell the story we are weak or uncertain, Jesus comes to as strength; if we cry out for justice, Jesus comes to us as judge; if we are joyful, Jesus enters as our guest; if we are alone, Jesus comes to us as friend. As we sing in that old hymn, “Tell me the old, old story, of unseen things above, of Jesus and his glory, of Jesus and his love.”
So yes, today is a little Easter (it’s Sunday, after all, and Sunday is always Easter), and the lessons are all about new life, whether it is breathed into dry bones—a whole valley of them—or called forth in the dead man Lazarus. But these lessons are just pointers to what lies ahead, as we already know: that our destiny is with God, who is life itself.
This past week we commemorated the poet John Donne, who died on March 31st in the year 1631. His well-known poem “Death be not proud” is deeply expressive of this confident, radiant hope that we have, even in the face of death, knowing already that the outcome of our story is not death, but God. With that valley of dry bones in your imagination, waiting for the spirit to breathe life into them; or with Lazarus in your mind, standing awkwardly outside his tomb, bound in
burial shrouds, hear that poem that reads:
Death be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadfull, for, thou art not soe,
For, those, whom thou think’st, thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poore death, nor yet canst thou kill mee.
From rest and sleepe, which but thy pictures bee,
Much pleasure, then from thee, much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee doe goe,
Rest of their bones, and soules deliverie.
Thou art slave to Fate, Chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poyson, warre, and sicknesse dwell,
And poppie, or charmes can make us sleepe as well,
And better then thy stroake; why swell’st thou then?
One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die.
Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory, both now, and at our end! Amen.