The Rev. Canon Dana Colley Corsello: Dry Bones and Lazarus
The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me all round them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. He said to me, ‘Mortal, can these bones live?’
I answered, ‘O Lord God, you know’ (Ezekiel 37: 1-3).
God does know. Ezekiel’s vision is given to a people who have lost heart, who are suffering a living death on this side of the grave: a living death of exile in a foreign land. Their holy city has been plundered; their temple destroyed; their soldiers put to the sword; their leaders maimed; their future put in chains and dragged off to Babylon. Ezekiel witnesses the collective soul of his people withering and dying—their marrow—their lifeblood, baked into dust.
How does Judah come back to life and return from exile? First this: “There was a noise, and behold a shaking, and the bones came together, bone to his bone. And when I beheld, lo, the sinews and the flesh came up upon them, and the skin covered them above: but there was no breath in them” (37:7–8). Do you get it? This is pottery throwing, dust from the ground. But it’s not life, not yet…these are empty vessels, terra cotta statues that are marvelous—but not yet touched by the miraculous.
But then: He said to me, ‘Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.’” (9). God’s Ruach, God’s breath completes the living creation: First dust, then body; first breath, then Spirit.
It’s this equation that has had me scratching my head about Lazarus for years. At the risk of preaching heresy, let me first say unequivocally that I believe in the resurrection—the conquering of the grave, the unbinding of the bound. And I believe that Jesus resurrected Lazarus as he did others during his ministry. I believe it as metaphor and symbol, and I believe it literally. I believe that God can and will bring back to life all that is dead, buried, and forgotten. The question, though, one that has gnawed at me all these years, is this: Did Lazarus want to be brought back from the dead?
When Jesus calls Lazarus out of the tomb, he warps time and nature. We do not know what kind of memory of trauma or of paradise Lazarus holds after four days of being dead. In these four days, his soul’s journey from life to death would have been complete. At best, Lazarus has no recollection of his transition. It is not written in the text, but one can imagine that Lazarus himself is confused about how he ended up back on this plane. We know very little because Lazarus doesn’t utter a word in John’s Gospel.
But we do know that Jesus was very close to this family from Bethany. When the sisters sent word that Lazarus was at death’s door—their message was, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” In this story we also get to experience Jesus in all of his living humanity. He is agitated. He grieves. He weeps. His display of emotion reminds us that grief comes to those who lose something or someone beloved. That is, we grieve because we love. When Jesus cries, he assures Mary and Martha not only that their beloved brother is worth crying for, but also that they are worth crying with.
My question about Lazarus stems from the fact that the burial cloths that bind his hands and feet and that veil shrouding his face are a reminder that death still clings to him. When Jesus was resurrected, his burial clothes were left behind in the tomb. Not so for Lazarus. And, of course, Lazarus will eventually die a second death. I have always been struck by what happens next, in Chapter 12. Jesus is invited to dinner with Lazarus and his sisters just before the Passover holiday. This is the same dinner where Mary anoints Jesus’ feet with expensive perfume and then dries them with her hair. Even at this dinner Lazarus remains mute. Could he have secretly resented his miraculous resurrection?
You see, when word spreads about the miracle in Bethany, the religious authorities decide that enough is enough; Jesus must be stopped and now Lazarus has a bounty on his head too. I don’t know; but it’s worth pondering.
I share this with you because in my imagination, Lazarus has been bodily raised, yet his spirit somehow seems to have been left in the tomb. Why isn’t he more animated? Why isn’t he sharing his experience of the great beyond? Why isn’t he the one anointing Jesus’ feet? Perhaps I am projecting my own personality (and ableism) onto Lazarus; I know I’d be running around like a chicken with its head chopped off sharing the good news to anyone who would listen!
Father James Martin, the Jesuit priest and author, asks his own provocative question about this passage: Why wasn’t the house of Mary and Martha ever referred to as the house of Lazarus? First-century Palestine was a patriarchal society; the male heir would have inherited the family home, its wealth, and its title. Martin points out that it was Henri Nouwen who postulated that Lazarus was disabled, either physically or mentally, and that his sisters had been taking care of him for years.[i] This could also explain why he never speaks.
What is even more revelatory is that while Lazarus has been resurrected, his disability remains. Lazarus is perfect in God’s eyes—on both sides of the grave—and we should think so, too. He is defined not by his disability, but by the love of his friend, Jesus, who brings him back to life. As Nouwen taught, this is “a mystery not to be solved but to be lived.”[ii]
So where does this Fifth Sunday in Lent leave us as we prepare for Jesus’s own death and resurrection? Ask yourself how Jesus has awoken the dead parts in you. And know that the deliverance from death of our brothers, sisters, and siblings demands something of us also. When Jesus calls Lazarus from the tomb—“Unbind him! Let him go!”—he commands us to unbind him, too. Whatever hardened hearts, prejudices, or unfounded fears we have of our neighbors, we need to leave them in the grave where they belong. We are to move with powerful compassion into a world that sorely needs our empathy and our love. It is our role to breathe healing prayers and the Holy Spirit into those emerging from their own personal hells, not to suck the marrow out of them. Everyone can be made new in Christ! Every one of us can be made alive to love, alive to hope, alive to each other.
The vision of Ezekiel in the Valley of the Dry Bones is meant to live in our imaginations and hearts when we find ourselves gasping for breath, struggling to live. We’re to know that our place in the depths is never out of bounds from God. We are finally freed from the mummification of fear, anxiety, loss, and grief; free to walk in dignity and become the beloveds God created us to be. Everyone deserves to be defined by love, nothing more, nothing less. We may dwell among the dry bones now, but we serve a God who calls us to life. Our journey is not to the grave but through it.
‘Mortal, can these bones live?’ I answered, ‘O Lord God, you know.’ Amen.
[i] https://www.facebook.com/watch/live/?ref=watch_permalink&v=214807776286681, Father James Martin, Bible Study about Lazarus