Sermon for Lent V

It may seem odd to us that, as we turn our attention towards the cross on this first day of Passiontide, we have two accounts of being raised from the dead. But this shouldn’t be too strange for us. People of faith, over many millennia, have discovered that the presence of life in the midst of death is not unusual. Indeed, we have discovered that the only way to life is through a kind of death; dying to self, relinquishing our ideas about what we had thought to constitute life, learning to live with constraints, learning to find freedom where choice is limited. I might go so far as to say that the discovery of life through dying is the heart not only of our religion, but of human experience at its deepest. There is no way to life that does not require a radical letting go; and if we do not find a true understanding of the constraints that face us, we will not find a way through to a fuller life. Christianity is, I believe, not idealistic, but utterly realistic in facing human reality as the only way to realise its transformation. That is what these days of Passiontide invite us to. That is what these days of pandemic crisis ask of us. They ask of us that we do not find paralysis in this difficult time, but hope and love. Nothing can defeat love. And if today’s account of the raising of Lazarus is about anything, it is about love. Jesus wept over his lost friend and they said, ‘see how much he loved him.’

Our two images from today’s two readings challenge us to confront the reality of what we face in this current crisis and three images from the world of art help us to see these realities in their specific detail. I’ve put them on my blog, which you can access from the OSP website if you’d like to see them for yourself. In the Ezekiel reading, we see an image of lifeless, desiccated fragments of what were once human bodies. In a rare example of Jewish representational art, a fresco from the 3rd century synagogue of Dura-Europos in modern-day Syria depicts this scene and shows the dry bones not as skeletal remains but as disconnected body parts. On one level, it is gruesome but on another it is profoundly moving. It shows that the real trauma for us human beings is in separation, in dismemberment. We do not thrive, we do not live when we are not connected to one another. Fragmentation is a major source of suffering for us and there is a risk that our necessary isolation in this current situation could lead to some degree of fragmentation. There is a risk that our anxiety could lead to a focus on our narrow concerns for our own wellbeing and lead us away from a commitment to the common good. In Ezekiel’s prophecy, however, life returns when fragmentation is replaced by connection, when there is a re-membering of the parts that have been severed. In the current situation that means contact, compassion, awareness of each other, selfless love.

Turning to our Gospel story, let me describe the scene as depicted by the early 14th century Italian master, Duccio. His painting of the raising of Lazarus shows him standing erect in the opening of a tomb but bound very tightly by his grave clothes, like a mummified body. A crowd stands to the left of the scene. One man is embracing the stone that had sealed the tomb. Most turn to face the risen Lazarus with astonishment and some with disgust. Mary and Martha, however, face Jesus. It is entirely faithful to the fourth evangelist’s account and leads us to the threshold of the moment of true liberation when Jesus, having already called Lazarus to come forth, now calls for him to be unbound, to be set free from his constraints. His life is not just about breathing again, but about being released from all that diminishes him.

Again, this rings true for us who currently face considerable constraints on our normal activities. We feel as if we are in the position of Lazarus, waiting for a word of release to let us step free of our limitations. But we are in the place of Lazarus in Duccio’s painting, alive but restricted. But I wonder if Duccio has not found something profound in choosing to freeze his image at this moment in time. Lazarus is not yet unbound, but he is alive. We can find freedom even when severe constraints appear to limit our choices. In Duccio’s image, I see that freedom in the face of Lazarus, who looks out on the whole scene with a steady gaze which meets the gaze of Jesus. He connects, even while he is still bound. We, too, are free to look upon the world with loving connection, even from the four walls of our living room.

I want to mention one final depiction of this scene, which is by a later Italian painter, Sebastiano del Piombo. His Lazarus is not emerging from a rock-hewn tomb, but from the ground. He is not bound but in the very process of wriggling free from his bandages. His muscular body is shedding its bonds and even his big toe is doing its bit in peeling off the restraining cloths. Where Duccio showed a moment of freedom in the midst of constriction, del Piombo shows a surge of strength and an assertion of vitality. For me, at this point in time, this painting hints at a future hope of resurrection. It suggests an irrepressible life-force which cannot be contained. But something is amiss. No one in the large crowd can look at Lazarus, not even those helping him to undo his bandages. Not one. Except Jesus. He alone can bear to look in the eye one who was dead and see in him the vigour of life, for he is the one who knows that he, too, must undergo the darkest of days before he can embrace the eternal light.

In him is our life, our hope, our consolation and our strength. In him is the promise that the full vigour of life will not be destroyed. In him is the willingness to look upon that which seems unbearable and see it through to the light of Easter’s dawn.

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