Sunday, 29 March 2020

‘But you know, death is
not the worst thing that
could happen to a Christian’

‘De Profundis’ (1943), the haunting Holocaust tour de force by Arthur Szyk (1894-1951), draws on Psalm 130: ‘Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord’

Patrick Comerford

Sunday 29 March 2020

The Fifth Sunday in Lent (Lent V), Passion Sunday

The Readings: Ezekiel 37: 1-14; Psalm 130; Romans 8: 6-11; John 11: 1-45.

There is a link to the readings HERE.

Lazarus is raised from the Dead … a fresco in the Analpsi Church in Georgioupoli on the Greek island of Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

May I speak to you in the name of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

This Sunday is often known as Passion Sunday, marking the beginning of the two-week period of Passiontide.

In Passiontide, the crosses and images in churches were often covered from this Sunday until the end of Good Friday, building up our anticipation for the story of Christ’s Passion, death and Resurrection.

In Passiontide, the Corona Virus or Covid-19 pandemic is creating communal angst that may well find a voice or resonances in the cry from the depths in Psalm 130 (De Profundis), and many people may worry that soon they are going to identify with Martha’s cry in our Gospel reading, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died’ (John 11: 21).

These heart-breaking cries may be heard in the most uncomfortable situations over the coming weeks. Where are we going to find God’s presence in this crisis? Where are we going to offer hope? How are we going to show and share the love of Christ? For we know too that ‘Jesus wept.’

Our readings this morning offer hope in the midst of death, and the experiences of the Prophet Ezekiel, the Psalmist in De Profundis, the Apostle Paul in the New Testament reading, and Mary and Martha at their home in Bethany, offer hope to people who face the pains of life and death at this time.

In the first reading, the Prophet Ezekiel is among the people deported when Babylon captured Jerusalem in 598 BCE. But, despite this crisis, he believes God is faithful to his people.

In the dry valley, God shows Ezekiel a dry place filled with dry bones that are lifeless. But the contrast to the dead bones is the ‘breath’ and ‘spirit’ (ruach, רוּחַ) of God. God will renew the covenant, restore the people, and promises the resurrection of all at the end of time.

Psalm 130 is known as De Profundis, is a prayer for deliverance from personal trouble, but ends with a message to all people.

The psalm opens with a call to God in deep sorrow, from ‘out of the depths’ or ‘out of the deep,’ a graphic phrase signalling closeness to despair or death.

The psalmist makes the powerful and paradoxical point that God is to be held in awe not because he punishes but because he forgives. He is merciful by nature, his help is worth waiting for, as watchmen guarding a town:

O Israel, wait for the Lord,
for with the Lord there is mercy;
With him is plenteous redemption
and he shall redeem Israel from all their sins
.

In the New Testament reading, Saint Paul explains the difference between what he calls living in the Spirit and living according to the flesh. As Christians, we live in the Spirit and the Spirit lives in us. We are alive because of the Spirit, for God’s Spirit is in us, God will give us new life through the Spirit, and raise us to new life at the end of time.

The Gospel reading (John 11: 1-45) is one of the best-known passages in Saint John’s Gospel for a number of reasons:

1, In the Authorised Version or King James Bible, it contains what is popularly known as the shortest verse in the Bible: ‘Jesus wept’ (verse 35). Later translations fail to provide the same dramatic impact as these crisp, short two words, ‘Jesus wept.’

2, The command, ‘Lazarus, come forth!’ has given rise to a number of childish, schoolboy jokes about athletic performance and not even winning a bronze medal. There is hardly the same potential in the NRSV’s: ‘Lazarus, come out!’

3, Lazarus himself is interesting. He is often confused with the Lazarus in Saint Luke’s Gospel, the poor man at the gate, the only character to be named in any of the parables.

The name Lazarus means ‘God helps,’ the Greek Λάζαρος (Lazaros) being derived from the Hebrew Eleazar, ‘God’s assistance,’ or: ‘God has helped.’ So, already, his name introduces us to an expectation of God’s help, God’s deliverance.

This story is the last – and the greatest – of the seven Signs in Saint John’s Gospel. This is the crowning miracle or Sign in Saint John’s Gospel. It provides the interpretation of the whole Gospel, it reveals Christ as the giver of life, holding together his two natures, his humanity and his divinity.

This reading also contains the fifth of the ‘I AM’ sayings: ‘I AM the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live’ (John 11: 25).

This seventh Sign holds together the two natures of Christ, his humanity and his divinity. The death, burial and shroud of Lazarus represent our own human plight. And the raising of Lazarus is a promise of the Resurrection of Christ and of our own resurrection.

Death was not the end for Lazarus … this time around. There is no further mention of him in the Bible. His first tomb in Bethany remains empty. But, of course, he had to die a second – and final – time.

Death comes to us all. We all end in the grave. No miracles, no wishing, no praying, can avoid that inevitability. So, what was wrong with the fact that Lazarus had died? That he was too young? We will all find when death comes that we are too young.

Perhaps what the Gospel writer is saying here, in a deep and profound way, is that death without the comfort of knowing the presence of Christ is distressing for anyone who seeks to be a follower of Christ.

In the Litany, we pray, ‘from dying unprepared, save us, good Lord’ (The Book of Common Prayer, p. 175). We should never forget the ways word and sacrament prepare those who are dying and those who mourn.

For we know that death is not the end. In his death, Christ breaks through the barriers of time and space, bringing life to those who are dead. Those who hear the voice of Christ live.

I once interviewed Archbishop Desmond Tutu and asked him about the death threats he faced in South Africa at the height of apartheid. He engaged me with that look that confirms his deep hope, commitment and faith, and said: ‘But you know, death is not the worst thing that could happen to a Christian.’

When Jesus looks up and says: ‘Father, I thank you for having heard me,’ the Greek conveys more of the prayerful action that is taking place: And Jesus lifted up his eyes and said, <<Πάτερ, εὐχαριστῶ σοι>> (Páter, efcharisto soi, ‘Father, I am giving thanks to you’). Lifting up his eyes is a prayerful action in itself, and combined with his giving thanks to the Father has actions and words that convey Eucharistic resonances.

Comfort for the living, comfort for the dying and comfort for those who mourn.

In the Eucharist, we remember not just Christ’s passion and death, but also his Resurrection, and we look for his coming again.

Christ in his life points us to what it is to be truly human. In the grave, he proves he is truly human. He has died. He is dead. Yet, unlike Lazarus the beggar, he can bridge the gap between earth and heaven, even between hell and heaven. But, like Lazarus of Bethany, he too is raised from death not by human power but by the power of God.

‘But you know, death is not the worst thing that could happen to a Christian.’ We know this with confidence because of the death and resurrection of Christ. Death is not the end.

Let us give thanks to God for life, for death, and for the coming fulfilment of Christ’s promises, which is the hope of the Resurrection, our Easter faith.

‘Surely I am coming.’ Amen. Come Lord Jesus (Revelation 22: 20).

And so, may all we think, say and do be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

The Raising of Lazarus by Duccio di Buoninsegna (ca 1260-1318), Kimbell Art Museum

John 11: 1-45 (NRSVA):

1 Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. 2 Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. 3So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, ‘Lord, he whom you love is ill.’ 4 But when Jesus heard it, he said, ‘This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.’ 5 Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, 6 after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.

7 Then after this he said to the disciples, ‘Let us go to Judea again.’ 8 The disciples said to him, ‘Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?’ 9 Jesus answered, ‘Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. 10 But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.’ 11 After saying this, he told them, ‘Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.’ 12 The disciples said to him, ‘Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.’ 13 Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. 14 Then Jesus told them plainly, ‘Lazarus is dead. 15 For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.’ 16 Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow-disciples, ‘Let us also go, that we may die with him.’

17 When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. 18 Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, 19 and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. 20 When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. 21 Martha said to Jesus, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22 But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.’ 23 Jesus said to her, ‘Your brother will rise again.’ 24 Martha said to him, ‘I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.’ 25 Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, 26 and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?’ 27 She said to him, ‘Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.’

28 When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, ‘The Teacher is here and is calling for you.’ 29 And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. 30 Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. 31 The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there. 32 When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’ 33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. 34 He said, ‘Where have you laid him?’ They said to him, ‘Lord, come and see.’ 35 Jesus began to weep. 36 So the Jews said, ‘See how he loved him!’ 37 But some of them said, ‘Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?’

38 Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. 39 Jesus said, ‘Take away the stone.’ Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, ‘Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead for four days.’ 40 Jesus said to her, ‘Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?’ 41 So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upwards and said, ‘Father, I thank you for having heard me. 42 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.’ 43 When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out!’ 44 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.’

45 Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.

‘The Lord … set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones’ (Ezekiel 37: 1) … the bones of the dead left behind in the charnal house beside the Basilica of the Panayia Pirgiotissa in the former Greek village of Levissi or Karmylassos, now the ghost town of Kayaköy in western Turkey (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Liturgical Colour: Violet (Lent, Year A).

Penitential Kyries (Passiontide and Holy Week):

Lord God,
you sent your Son to reconcile us to yourself and to one another.

Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

Lord Jesus,
you heal the wounds of sin and division.

Christ, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.

Holy Spirit,
through you we put to death the sins of the body – and live.

Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

The Collect of the Day:

Most merciful God,
who by the death and resurrection of your Son Jesus Christ
delivered and saved the world:
Grant that by faith in him who suffered on the cross,
we may triumph in the power of his victory;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Lenten Collect:

Almighty and everlasting God,
you hate nothing that you have made
and forgive the sins of all those who are penitent:
Create and make in us new and contrite hearts
that we, worthily lamenting our sins
and acknowledging our wretchedness,
may receive from you, the God of all mercy,
perfect remission and forgiveness;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Introduction to the Peace:

Now in union with Christ Jesus you who were once far off have been brought near through the shedding of Christ’s blood; for he is our peace.
(Ephesians 2: 17)

Preface:

Through Jesus Christ our Saviour,
who, for the redemption of the world,
humbled himself to death on the cross;
that being lifted up from the earth,
he might draw all people to himself:

The Post-Communion Prayer:

God of hope,
in this Eucharist we have tasted
the promise of your heavenly banquet
and the richness of eternal life.
May we who bear witness to the death of your Son,
also proclaim the glory of his resurrection,
for he is Lord for ever and ever.

Blessing:

Christ draw you to himself
and grant that you find in his cross
a sure ground for faith,
a firm support for hope,
and the assurance of sins forgiven:

‘Mortal, can these bones live?’ (Ezekiel 37: 3) … skulls in the ossuary in Arkadi Monastery from a battle in 1866 during the Turkish occupation of Crete, when hundreds of people died (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Hymns:

293, Breathe on me, Breath of God (CD 18)
569, Hark, my soul, it is the Lord (CD 33)
310, Spirit of the living God (CD 18)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

Material from the Book of Common Prayer is copyright © 2004, Representative Body of the Church of Ireland.

‘Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord’ (Psalm 130, ‘De Profundis’) … in the depths of a cave on the Greek island of Paxos (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

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