A couple of weeks ago in Italy, and then last week in New York City, an alarming detail emerged in stories of the coronavirus crisis: hospitals were asking for permission to create makeshift morgues. There were too many deaths to process in the normal ways. There were too many bodies to store in the normal place. Italy had to suspend some rules about handling the dead, including the right of the survivors to have the deceased person buried instead of cremated. There were too many.
These are terrible tragedies, and maybe all the more terrible because they are fundamentally private. Yes, our grief at a sudden death connects us to the whole grieving body of humanity. Yes, we find solace in people who have gone through the same thing. But it happens to us and to those we love one or a few at a time while the world goes about its business. No one stops and nothing changes.
To see a camp constructed for the dead is another matter. It drives home to us that we are all, together, subject to this plague. It is a different experience of grief and dread. Dante, the Italian poet who wrote the Inferno, has his main character react with shock when he goes to visit Hell. “I did not know death had undone so many.” For one death we may imagine a turn of luck that changes the outcome and brings our loved one back to us. For a multitude of deaths there is no such imagination.
Ezekiel the prophet is taken by the hand of the LORD to a valley filled with dry bones. Many bones, dead and scattered. Can these bones live? God asks.
Lord God, you are the one who knows, the prophet says.
And God commands the prophet to preach to the bones: Speak to the dead bones and tell them, I will cause the breath of life to enter you and sinews and flesh to come upon you and you will live, and you will know that I am the LORD.
So the prophet does. He proclaims God’s Word to the bones, and the bones are knitted together and covered with flesh again. They find each other, bone to its bone, in this great campsite of the dead. But they stand without life. So God tells the prophet, prophesy to the wind, or the breath: Come from the four winds and breathe upon these slain, that they may live. The prophet does as God commands and the bodies live, a vast multitude.
The bones in Ezekiel’s vision represent the children of Israel. Some were killed and many more were scattered during the invasions of Assyria and Babylonia. Their future as a people was in doubt, if it was not in fact hopeless. And the vision of the prophet in the midst of that experience of national death was a vision of hope by virtue of the impossible: the dead will be raised, the people will live, and the LORD who is their God, their only God and theirs alone, will be known in the world.
At the same time, this story shows us the great power and faithfulness of God. God’s promise and God’s concern for his people does not stop at the grave. The graves will be opened, the dead shall be raised, and all flesh shall see the vindication of God’s people together.
This is a general hope. “I know my brother will be raised in the resurrection,” Martha tells Jesus at the death of Lazarus in today’s Gospel. She looks for the resurrection of the dead, as the Nicene Creed says. But she knows that it is not now. Like many other proclamations of hope, it is stashed safely and miserably in the future. But Jesus tells her that he himself is the resurrection and the life.
Then something startling happens: Jesus weeps. Jesus, the Son of God, the eternal Word, in whom the fullness of the Godhead dwells bodily, who was before Abraham, the Alpha and Omega through whom all things were made, who holds all of life and every human soul in his hands--weeps. The great power within and beyond all creation whom earth and heaven adore breaks into tears. All the sorrow and suffering of the human condition, the sickness and death and grief, bursts into the moment at Lazarus’s tomb.
Jesus weeps for Lazarus and Martha and Mary and yet for more than Lazarus and Martha and Mary. Jesus weeps for the solitary death of Lazarus and the great city of the dead seen by Ezekiel. Jesus weeps for your tragedy and for the impersonal death hotels in Milan and New York.
Then he speaks into the tomb. Prophesy to the bones. Lazarus, come out. The bones rattle, the sinews attach, the decay reverses, the breath returns. Death into life.
This is worship. God enters our world in words of lamentation: Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy. Lord, have mercy. From all sin, from all error, from all evil; from the cunning assaults of the devil; from an unprepared and evil death: Good Lord, deliver us. From war, bloodshed, and violence; from corrupt and unjust government; from sedition and treason: Good Lord, deliver us. From epidemic, drought, and famine; from fire and flood, earthquake, lightning, and storm, and from everlasting death: Good Lord, deliver us.
Jesus weeps. And Jesus speaks into our tomb: Lazarus, come out. Your sins are forgiven. The Body of Christ, given for you. The Gospel--good news--proclaimed to you. Preach to the breath, son of man, and the breath will listen. Come out of your graves.
And in the valley, in the tomb, in the shutdown living room, in the home office, in the unemployment line, the dry bones respond. Glory to you, O Lord. Thanks be to God. Amen, amen, amen. God speaks life and the dead answer.
This is worship: the sixth “holy possession” that sanctifies God’s people and makes them known in the world. Singing and prayer, praise and thanksgiving. It is not a consumer product. It is not a performance for an audience. It is not an exercise in self-improvement. It is words of life spoken into death and the dead coming out of their graves to respond with joy.
There will be fear and dread. There will be hatred and suspicion. We are invited every day into uncountable wicked liturgies that will speak bad news to us and demand an equally vicious response. Whether the words are denial, or scapegoating, or blame-shifting, or callousness towards those who suffer, they all ask us to take up the strain and to repeat the chorus to the heavens.
But we will not do that. The church will not do that. Jesus says “Lazarus come out.” Preach to the bones and the bones will live--you will live. And your life will be life for others. The generosity we receive from God will be compassion for others. The tears of Jesus will not be in vain. Our praise and our song are for the living God and for the life of the world. “When from death I’m free, I’ll sing on, I’ll sing on,” as the hymn says. “While millions join the theme, I will sing.”