The eight o’clock service was over. I had gotten a cup of coffee and went into my office when the telephone rang. It was a familiar voice on the other end of the line. But the words that were spoken suddenly became abstract, almost incomprehensible. “Stephen is dead.” Silence and a few mumbled responses finished the conversation and I set the telephone down.
Stephen is dead. I had known Stephen in the university where I was last employed. We weren’t old friends, but we were good friends. A year and a half before his death, he discovered that he had AIDS. This was in the days before “the cocktail”. He never spoke of how the disease had been transmitted and I never asked. I cannot tell you whether Stephen was gay or straight, or whether he had received a tainted blood transfusion, or what happened. What I can tell you about Stephen is this: he was an athletic and handsome man of about thirty-five; he was at church every week; he took his degrees at Northwestern and at Oxford; he taught in the English department and we shared a love of poetry. He had a keen sense of humor and he took very good care of his elderly parents. He had a steady girlfriend named Christine. He was my friend and now he was gone.
Desolation. Weeping. Despair. It is often the reaction to loss. Ezekiel, the prophet, stands overlooking a valley – not a lush, green valley with a gently flowing stream which we might see in our mind’s eye – but a desolate, dry and barren valley where practically nothing lives. On the floor of the valley are human bones, perhaps the remains of soldiers who had been slaughtered in some terrible ancient battle and had been left unburied. Dry bones on every side. Carrion perched on nearby rocks and the sun beating mercilessly down. That is the kind of vista which Ezekiel sees. It is a scene symbolic of the nation Israel now in exile. It is a vision of utter desolation and of terrible hopelessness.
Mourning. Recriminations. Anger. Lazarus is dead and his sisters, Mary and Martha, are beside themselves. This young man, who was obviously the life of the household and a friend to so very many, including Our Lord and His disciples, is gone. As was the custom, Lazarus is placed in the tomb on the day of his death, professional mourners are hired for a week and the high-pitched Middle Eastern sound of wailing is heard throughout the village. Our Lord, having arrived late, is met by the veiled reproach of Martha, “Lord, if you had been here earlier, my brother would not have died.”
The question comes naturally to the participants in both situations: Where is God in the midst of death and the loss of hope?
That question is ours as well.
In the valley of desolation, Ezekiel hears a voice: “Son of man, can these bones live?” In other words, “Do you think it’s possible for these dry bones to become living, breathing human beings again?” The prophet is a little dumbfounded. He replies, “Lord, only you know the answer to that.” Ezekiel is told to prophesy to those dry bones, that is, to share a word of life in the midst of death. I can only imagine that Ezekiel must have felt somewhat foolish, but he started. In a modern translation this is his sermon:
O dry bones, listen to the Word of God, for the Lord God says, ‘See I am going to make you live and breathe again! I will place flesh and the muscle on you and cover you, and I will put breath into you and you shall live and know that I am the Lord.’
Something very mysterious begins to happen. There is a rattling noise all across the valley and the bones of each body start moving and joining themselves together. As the bones connect they are covered with muscle and flesh. Suddenly, the four winds come and breathe new life into the bodies and they once again become a great army.
The message to the prophet, and to us as well, is that there is so such thing as a hopeless situation… even for a defeated and scattered nation in exile. Even for a diminished and scattered Church in exile…
We see it again in the story of Lazarus. Our Lord comes late into a hopeless situation. The sisters are completely overcome with grief. The process of grieving is played out in full. There are harsh words, anger, bargaining and resignation. These are people like us. Yet somehow there is also a sense that now that Christ is among them, something remarkable might happen. It does. First, however, Jesus weeps with the family and shares their grief. Then, He does something more. Against strident and practical objections, He orders the stone to be moved away from the grave of Lazarus and shouts the command, “Come forth.” And again, almost as in the vision of Ezekiel, the dead man rises from the tomb and comes into the light of day.
For us as individuals, for us as the Church, God enters our places of despair and brings hope. In our places of death and grief, He brings life and joy. “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live.”
All of us have times of desolation, of loss, of discouragement. None of us are exempt. We all share the “human condition”. Sometimes we need to be reminded of God’s presence in the shadows and dark places of our lives which we all experience.
Often, like Mary, the sister of Lazarus, we simply believe that there is little to be done in an already hopeless situation. After all, Lazarus was dead and in the tomb for four days. According to Jewish lore, his spirit had departed after the third day. Although they believed Jesus to be the Messiah, He had simply arrived too late to do anything. The tragic situation was beyond remedy.
Beyond remedy – like the career that has crashed and burned… like the marriage that has failed… like the medical diagnosis at the last examination… like the child who has broken our heart. Beyond remedy… and God seems distant.
Even worse, why did God let this happen to us? When Martha says, “Lord, if only you had been here earlier, my brother would not have died”, we understand her frustration. As Eric Berne has written, many people spend much of their lives playing the game of “If only…”
“If only my parents had been different. If only I had been born someplace else. If only I were rich. If only I were married. If only I were not married. If only I didn’t live here. If only I could get that other job. If only, if only, if only. If only somehow I could get all the circumstantial furniture of my life and my past arranges in just the right way… then things would turn out right.”
Christ, however, comes to us in the reality of the “now”. He comes to us where we are. He weeps with us in our sorrow, He nails the “if only’s” of our yesterdays to the Cross and in the face of despair and death promises us resurrection and new life. You see, the death of our dreams, or the death of our bodies, is not the end, for death has been swallowed up in life… His life.
Some, however, know this better than others.
The last time I saw Stephen was in the Autumn of the year. He was obviously very ill. He looked as though he had aged thirty years in a matter of months. His skin, scarred by lesions, hung loose upon his frame, but his eyes, now set very deep, still sparkled. We sat and talked, not about his illness, for that would not have been like Stephen, but about the English poet and priest, John Donne. Stephen must have sensed how upset I was to see him so ill. I turned to leave the room having said what I almost certainly knew would be a final farewell. As I reached for the door, Stephen called me from his chair and said, “He was right, you know.” I turned and said, “What do you mean?” “John Donne,” he replied, “he was right”. From memory he then recited some familiar lines, with a half-smile as though he knew something that I could only guess at…
Death, be not proud,
Though some have called Thee mighty and dreadful,
For thou art not so,
For those, whom Thou think’st Thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poor death…
One short sleep passed, we wake eternally
And death shall be no more.
Death, thou shalt die…