Gospel for the Fifth Sunday in Lent, Year A
Several times a day my wife and I scan the New York Times on line. These days, of course, we find that almost every article is more bad news about the current pandemic—each story worse than the last. Perhaps the most disturbing article of all was the one today titled “When You Die of Coronavirus, You Die Alone.”
I wanted to put an exclamation point on that headline. It shook me by bringing to mind an interview I heard with Sherwin B. Nuland, a physician, who years ago wrote a bestselling book about the clinical, biological, and emotional aspects of dying in our modern world. At the end of the interview his interlocutor asked, “What is the worst way to die.” I thought the doctor might suggest a horrible accident or lingering disease like bone cancer or Huntington’s disease. Instead, he quickly answered, “Alone.”
And, tragically, when patients are diagnosed with this hated and feared virus, they are immediately put into isolation. And, if they are hit hard enough, there they die. Apart from family and friends. Alone!
And yet, that’s the way we all die, isn’t it. Dying is an integral part of human life. We prepare for it from the moment we are born. For each of us it is a supremely solitary thing that we are doing as we negotiate this thing called life with the inevitability of death inexorably dawning on us. We are peeling back all of the layers of dishonesty: the euphemisms, the denial, the avoidance. We are peeling away every defense mechanism: the ways we hide ourselves in the religion or the philosophy or the public opinion of those who surround us in our world. We have to work it out our own way. As we prepare for death, cope with death, unravel the mystery of death…and die, we are alone.
That old folk/gospel song got it right:
You gotta walk that lonesome valley,
You gotta walk it by yourself,
Nobody else can walk it for you,
You gotta walk it by yourself.…
And death looms large at the end of our journey of faith. This Lent we have followed the dramatic stories of Jesus with Nicodemus, the Samaritan woman at the well, and the man born blind. Each of them had to move, by stages, from the shadow into light, from misunderstanding to enlightenment, from indecision to risky decisiveness. Jesus moved them into ever more profound trusting and trustworthiness. But Lazarus in his shroud and tomb represents the climatic and final stage of faith.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote of this in his poem “Stations on the Way to Freedom.” Bonhoeffer is well known as a German, Lutheran, Christian, who stood out from the masses of German, Lutheran, Christians who abandoned their own souls to follow the monster they thought of as their great man and savior: savior-man Adolf Hitler. Of course, Bonhoeffer was imprisoned for his principled resistance, and eventually executed, just weeks before the “liberation” of Germany by the invading allied armies. As he awaited his hanging, Bonhoeffer wrote his poem and sent it to his friend, Eberhard Bethge, as the only birthday present he could give. In his solitary cell he thought of the stations on the way: discipline, action, and suffering—all things that the Fourth Gospel would certainly agree are essential along the road to eternal life. But here is the last stanza:
Come now, highest of feasts on the way to freedom eternal, death, lay down your ponderous chains and earthen enclosures
walls that deceive our souls and fetter our mortal bodies,
that we might at last behold what here we are hindered from seeing.
Freedom, long have we sought you through discipline, action,
Dying, now we discern in the countenance of God your own face.
Bonhoeffer knew these were not rungs on a ladder of ascent to God. They did not represent a formula for earning God’s favor. They were, simply, the stations along the way that Jesus was calling.
The disciples, Mary, and Martha, and the other mourners at the tomb, disturbed—even angered Jesus with their persistent misunderstanding. He was from above, and he wanted his own to understand that physical death is not the enemy. And revivification is not the victory. Lazarus comes out of the tomb still in the grave clothes. He will yet die a physical death. Along the way to freedom and eternal life he, and all of us, are still deceived too easily and fettered, and hindered, from seeing.
But Jesus is disturbed. And so he fights for us and gives of his life. But when he steps out of his tomb, the grave clothes stay behind. He has come from above to then show us the path ahead. He awaits us there and lays out for us the highest of feasts. Along the path of freedom physical death is only sleep. Living eternal life the virus can, ultimately, do no harm to us, but only provide the opportunity to see the works and the glory of God.
This extraordinary time of global pandemic does indeed shake us to our core—it turns our attention in a brutal way to our own mortality, and the one valley we must all walk through alone. But Jesus says to us, “Come out of this valley of darkness and see the light of the Life that I am giving you. The Life of freedom. The Life that death cannot touch.”
Let us now lean forward to Easter when we can sing “Alleluia” once again for that glorious promise that awaits us!
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