The sole surviving painting of
the 15th-century German artist Albert Van Outwater is
a depiction of this week's scripture passage: the raising of Lazarus. Though
set in the context of a 15th Century church with its distinctive
arches and customary burials inside the church, Outwater's
painting is still able to capture the drama and conflict of John's story. The
artist even adds a bit of his own thoughts with the apostle Peter represented
in the monastic dress of the Middle Ages trying to negotiate some form of
understanding between "the Jews" (as the text refers to them) on the
right, and Jesus and his friends on the left. And there in the bottom centre,
looking perhaps a little whiter than usual but none worse for the wear, is
Lazarus. He's ready to go out into the world as a new man.
But "new man" is really misleading here because it is not an accurate reading of the text. When Jesus calls his beloved friend Lazarus from the grave, John states that "the dead man (ho tethnekos) came out, his hands and feet bound in strips of cloth " (John 11:44a) Though some translations try to smooth this over a bit referring, for example, to "the one who had been dead" the Greek text is quite clear on the matter. We're dealing here with a dead man walking.
As you look at the painting, as you reflect on the passage where do you find yourself most at ease in the painting. With what group of people do you most identify and why? With Martha or Mary as they professed their faith in Christ? With their frustration at Jesus' late arrival and the renewed hope that came with his presence among them? With Lazarus who died, like many Christians after him, in the hopes that his saviour would soon come and deliver him from his frightening predicament?
Or maybe you find yourself with those nay-sayers and gawkers on the right side of this painting. Maybe the man in the strange hat holding a rag over his nose.
This passage marks an important transition in John's gospel, for it is here that Jesus trades his own life for that of his friend. We read after this happened that "the Jews" begin conspiring against him, plotting to kill him for "the good of the nation." Better to kill one man for his indiscretion, reasons Caiaphas, than to bring the wrath of the Romans down upon Jerusalem (John 11:50). So as Lazarus rises from the tomb into the unexpected hope of a longer life, Jesus turns his thoughts toward the place of the skull, Golgotha, and the realisation that his time on earth is growing shorter with each passing hour. It is no wonder then that he weeps; the drama of his friend's passing, the sorrow of Mary and Martha, the stench of death in the air, and the certain knowledge that a darker road now lay ahead, must have been altogether overwhelming. Before his followers could know that he is indeed the resurrection and the life, Jesus would have to endure his own crucifixion and death.
And this brings us once again to the dead man walking, and the suspicion that when all is said and done, this passage is less about resurrection than about the need, even as life slips from our grasp, to affirm our temporal experience. In first-century Palestine there were a number of beliefs concerning what happened to a person after they died. The older, more conservative view saw death merely as a separation from God, and Sheol as that place where everyone the wicked and the just persisted as mere shadows of their former selves. Others, influenced most likely by Plato and the Greeks, hoped for the release of the soul from the tomb of the body and liberation into the eternal, spiritual realm. Many Jews, however, the Pharisees among them, believed that in the final days God would resurrect all who had died and judge them according to their deeds on earth. Christianity, of course, adopted the latter perspective, though you'd never know it to speak with many in the church today who profess that upon death their "souls will go to heaven" to live forever with God. Whatever happened to the Creeds: "I believe in the resurrection of the body"?
But what is meant by the resurrection of the body. Paul says that on that day we will have "spiritual bodies". This would mean, hopefully, that we can look forward to not having to endure the physical health problems that plague us. But what kind of body will a spiritual body be? Will we eat? Will we drink? Go to the bathroom? What about sex?
The questions are overwhelming if we get drawn down this path. But perhaps our affirmation of the resurrection isn't so much about our mode of existence after death, but about the goodness of the body that accompanies and in some ways defines us throughout this earthly life. We do not inhabit a throw-away vessel, though there is much in our "culture of cleanliness" that encourages us to think this way. The illusion is that we can all live very neat, very ordered and fulfilling lives if we can only tap into our "true spiritual nature." Of course, this pursuit requires that we eliminate the unsightly distractions that challenge us along the way. So we hide away the anomalies. We place our elderly in assisted living facilities and pay other such undesirables a pittance to clean up after them and keep them company. We enable the disabled with the proper legislation hoping that their marginalisation can at least be made a little easier for them, and a lot more efficient for us. With respect to end-of-life issues, our medical professionals pursue the ideal of life at all costs, but at the expense of a meaningful death welcomed ritually in the context of a caring human community.
But the reality that lies at the heart of the gospel reading this week is this: though we do our best to deny it, we are all "dead men walking." We may not identify immediately with his image in the painting above, but we are all Lazarus. Our hoped-for culture of clean is just a pipe dream, for we smell bad!
And yet Jesus still calls us forth.
We bear the marks of our immortality within us, and this is as it ought be. We like to think that the work of Christ somehow saves us from our deaths, but this is not entirely true; it saves us only from the finality of death. We must then do what we can always to honour the earthly end to which we will one day come, as well as the often frustrating and sometimes repulsive bodies that will accompany us along the way. How easily we forget that it was into such a state that God became incarnate as a living being. "The Word became flesh," John tells us. "He took on the form of a slave," Paul elsewhere confesses. A slave who smelled bad!
We do not know what our resurrected bodies will look like in the life to come, and I don't think it is worth much time worrying about it. Thankfully, the story of Lazarus helps us to focus our attention on the here and now. It is enough to know that the body we now bear with all its smells and unsightly imperfections is the very one that was baptised and welcomed into the church, the body of Christ. And it is Christ himself who is continually calling us forward, like Lazarus, to touch, to smell, to taste, to hear, to see to serve so many other bodily beings in my midst.
"Welcome all as Christ," St. Benedict taught his fifth-century monks. I'd like to think that John might encourage us also to "welcome all as Lazarus," as "dead ones walking" as it were, and even to do so in gratitude, as if stepping forth from the darkness of our own tombs into the light of the world. And don't be surprised if at some point along the way you, like Jesus, have occasion to weep, for it is in our empathy, our "suffering with," that Word touches flesh, and Christ is made manifest among us.
Acknowledgement: Daniel G. Deffenbaugh