Sermon given at Sung Eucharist on Sunday 6th April 2014
6 April 2014 at 11:00 am
The Reverend Dr James Hawkey, Minor Canon and Precentor
At first glance, the site of Auschwitz Birkenau and the Roman Basilica of Santa Maria della Concezione appear to have very little in common. One, the parched sight of one of the most horrendous blashphemous crimes against humanity; the all too familiar epitomy of Nazi evil, the place we are told where the birds do not sing. The other, a 17th century Basilica off the via Veneto, near S Maria Maggiore in Rome, commissioned by the Barberini pope Urban VIII, and described by that most unlikely of Church fans Le Marquis de Sade as the most striking thing he had ever seen. But the crypt of S Maria della Concezione contains an ossuary with literally thousands of skeletons – the remains of Capuchin friars which have been stored within, or even have been used to decorate the crypt in a slightly morbid baroque fashion. The legend in one chapel reads “What you are now, we once were; what we are now, you shall be.” No one who has ever visited Auschwitz will forget the piles of human hair, the photographs of thousands of bodies taken soon after the allies had liberated the camp, the ever present discovery of yet more bones.
Shall these bones live?
This is the question at the heart of our Old Testament reading from the prophet Ezekiel, as the Prophet finds himself in a valley full of dry bones, with neither flesh nor breath, and it is a question which has wracked philosophers and theologians ever since. On this Sunday, Passion Sunday, when our minds turn more intensely towards the coming Passion and Death of Jesus, we are encouraged once again to ask the question. Shall these bones live? Shall it all be redeemed? Can we believe that the Lord who created these bones, sinews and skin will bring his creation to fulfilment?
After Auschwitz, many have said, the world’s hopes are not the same. The contemporary Irish poet Micheal O’Siadhail in his collection of Holocaust poetry The Gossamer Wall, asks whether even poetry can operate in the same way:
Covenants of silence so broken between us
Can we still promise or trust what we mean?
It is the sheer volume of the sights at Auschwitz or even in the crypt of S Maria dell Concezione which shock us to the core, which seem to almost undermine our hopes, but all of us who have been ever been bereaved know that the pain and the question posed by a single death of someone we love is just as profound, just as destabilising. Jesus himself in today’s Gospel is not immune, as that shortest verse in the whole bible tells us that after the death of Lazarus, “Jesus wept.” This was so extraordinary to the late Medieval mind that the phrase “Jesus wept” became an exclamation with a sharp intake of breath. But Hugh of St Victor reminds us that Jesus’ suffering, his passion for the world, was not just passionem in carne (suffering in the flesh) but also compassionem in mente (co-suffering in the mind), compassione in miseria aliena (co-suffering with another’s misery), compassionate for us in his heart and mind – truly as we shall say, sing and hear over the next weeks, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.
But the central point of today’s Gospel is one which at first might perhaps surprise us in the midst of Lent. It is not primarily about grief, bones or suffering, but rather a rich and fundamentally embracing sign of Christ’s resurrection. The raising of Lazarus, the last of St John’s three great Signs is like the opening of an unspeakably powerful vortex of light, drawing us forward into the mystery of the resurrection even as we consider Christ’s passion, it is in CS Lewis’ terms, like stepping into the wardrobe and seeing the other side – the glimpse of Christ’s victory, so that nothing is ever the same again. A fundamental newness which is present right at the heart of pain and grief; a prophecy and sign of Christ’s resurrection but also an unveiling of his cosmic identity – the God Man who destroys death and hell through his own grief, his own death, his own destruction of hell.
It is often helpful to investigate how these wonderful stories would have been heard by their earliest hearers. The sisters Mary and Martha appear elsewhere in the Gospels. They are clearly part of Jesus’ intimate circle, and he is often a guest at their home. Lazarus, their brother, is a friend of Jesus – one whom he loved, John tells us. As so often in John’s Gospel the text is at least two or three-dimensional, each verse full of meaning, but at its heart is a story of real grief and real hope. A real family, real friends, struggling with a real death and real questions, which unveil the identity of one of the key protagonists. The second or third century text The Apocalypse of Elijah claims that the genuine raising of the dead was the only feat that could not be counterfeited by the anti-Christ. This was the one thing which evil could not fake, because it was fundamentally opposed to evil’s path which led to nothingness and decay. So the sign of the raising of Lazarus, after real grief and mourning on all sides, was both the sign of who Jesus is, and the promise of his own resurrection.
And all this, a fortnight before Easter; a fortnight during which we must once again travel with Christ through his betrayal, his trial, his torture, his death, his burial. It is one of the cameo characters in this story who helps us understand the direction of travel. Thomas, who will later not believe until he sees the Risen Christ and touches his wounds, says to his fellow disciples and to us, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” The Christian Faith is not a series of shortcuts, of helpful make-believe situations, of magic tricks or temporary lite feel-good factors. No encouragement for cryonics or reincarnation. No shortcuts. The real story of Holy Week is far more exciting. Shall these bones live? Is that which is dried up, breathless, forsaken with grief capable of life and resurrection. Only through the grave and gate of death. Through the vortex of light and life which echoes with the voice of the man who has sorrowed with us, the voice of Jesus commanding “Lazarus, come out!” We must walk with him and allow him to walk with us through the darkness, through his passion and our sharing in it, trusting the resurrection promise we taste in this eucharist, the promise given those many centuries before to Ezekiel, “I will bring you up from your graves, O my people, I will put my spirit within you and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act, says the Lord.”
O Saviour of the world, who by your cross and precious blood has redeemed us; save us and help us we humbly beseech thee, O Lord.