Lazarus Sunday (the penultimate Sunday of Lent, 2023)

As next week is Palm Sunday, today is the last “regular” Sunday of Lent. In the early church, the eve of Palm Sunday was a special observance called “the announcement of Pascha”. It remained in the Orthodox church as “the Saturday of Lazarus,” an evening service focused on the story of Jesus bringing this man back to life. For us, too, this is the last gospel we will read together before Palm Sunday. As such, in many traditions, it serves an important function of putting in perspective all those emotionally challenging rituals and recollections of Jesus’ suffering and death in which we will soon engage. Indeed, a handful of biblical stories, both in the Old and New Testaments, do employ the resurrection motif that becomes epitomized in Christ, and add their own dimensions to it. Today, to provide an OT complement to the gospel, we read about Ezekiel’s vision of dry bones that become clothed in muscle, gain new breath, and spring back to life. 

Ezekiel was an Israelite who lived at the turn of the 6th century BC. He trained to be a priest, but just as he reached the appropriate age to begin his work at the Temple, the disaster struck. At the age of 30 – Christ’s age at the start of his own ministry! – all that for which he was preparing and longing, his entire identity, vocation, hope and vision, was gone. He and other young men were captured and carried to Babylon; the Temple where he was to serve lay in ruins, and his country was invaded. Of course, his people wouldn’t have been the first or last in history to go through such a tragedy. Today, far too many communities around the world are struggling with military conflict as we speak. 

We are lucky to live in a safe place, but we have also recently faced similar loss of control and awareness of our mortality, fragility of everything that we held dear, and interdependence of services on which we rely. Today is March 26, my kids’ two weeks of March break are over, and they are heading back to school tomorrow to make my life “normal” again. But three years ago, on March 17, 2020, Ontario announced its first death with COVID-19, and on March 23, Toronto declared a state of emergency. That year, over just a couple of weeks of March break, everything changed. The next 3 years exposed “the sea of dry bones,” so to speak, as many deficiencies of our political, societal, and economic systems became visible, and in some places, death toll rapidly escalated. I would say that we did go through the crisis of faith and identity then, not too dissimilar to that of Ezekiel’s people. The kind of re-evaluation of priorities that occurs whenever we experience the loss of control and life itself, individually or en masse.

In Ezekiel’s time, one could find literal valleys filled with bones where the slain enemy had been overwhelmed with no one to bury the dead. But the remains in his vision represent more than the military losses of his people, as of course, the losses of Covid encompassed more than individual lives. Recall that for ancient Israelites, dead matter was ritually “unclean”. So for Ezekiel – a priest-to-be who is supposed to stay “clean” –  to wade through the dead remains meant the same thing as for other prophets to marry a prostitute or bake bread over the fire kindled with cow dung. Likewise, the gospel stories we’ve read over this Lent had Jesus touching what others in his culture considered “unclean”. In himself, too, he faced temptations, cross-cultural divides, and prejudice related to illness, blindness, social status, etc. As such, the theme that God comes to meet us where we are, how we are – good, bad, and ugly – is woven through all our sacred texts. The bottom line is that rather than us having to somehow clean ourselves before we dare to approach, as the Levitical priests did, God comes down to dwell right among us, and raises up our condition to the heights of his/her glory. However, such transformation hinges upon the re-examination of what or whom we ourselves consider “unclean” in our world. 

Has COVID already been redeemed? Most crises one day come to an end, as life on “the other side” becomes the status quo. We somehow manage to go on to build lives without family members, restore bombed and flooded homes, and in the case of COVID, learn to live with or without pandemic restrictions. Perhaps, each time we emerge from a tough situation, we do gain a glimpse of the great renewal that awaits all of God’s creation at the end of time. Of course, while still on earth, such renewal is usually stepwise and gradual, it never takes us back to the old normal, and it relies on grace that comes from beyond ourselves. What are your specific hopes for life “when this is all over”?

Whether it is or isn’t over, yet, is up for interpretation; but I would hope that we may not allow ourselves to rush right back in too soon, forget how close we came to face our mortality, how fragile is our economic system, and how dependent we are on the rest of the society for everything from toilet paper to entertainment. To do so would be akin to simply putting the new flesh over the dry, still dead bones, and to have wasted the three years of hardship and reflection.

What would you say was the moment when you experienced that sense of having the new breath coming into your lungs? The sudden realization that you can finally breathe easily and feel lighter? It does eventually arrive, one day, in the aftermath of all difficulty, low energy, mental struggle, and grief – pandemic related or otherwise. The gaps in the fabric of our lives left by our losses will never fully close. Seeing our loved ones again will have to wait till the time we reach heaven ourselves. But, there are previews of resurrection available here on earth. Post-COVID, for many of us, they took place here, in the church, as we finally traded the silence of solitary prayer (or muted zoom prayer!) for voices raised in hymns, the glimmer of communion vessels polished with love, mystery of bread and wine taken together, exchange of peace, and etc. But equally important was the movement to true compassion towards each other, in every practical way in which we have been helping each other. Both worship and charity flow out of the movement of the Spirit within us; and only taken together do they truly testify to the restorative power of God already at work in the world. Thanks be to God.

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