November 1st, 2015
Of course, both can’t be true: either his relics were lost or his head is still on a shelf somewhere in France. Who knows? We know one thing for sure: Lazarus didn’t stay alive. Lazarus, in the words of Joseph Conrad, “he dead.” He didn’t stay raised—his resurrection was a temporary condition. In fact, after Lazarus comes out of the tomb, he sticks close to Jesus, because the authorities wanted to kill him—his life helped people believe in Jesus. It helps to be considered the Son of God if you can have a previously dead person come to your parties, like Jesus did. And it helps in your efforts to get people to disbelieve in Jesus if you can kill the person he raised from the dead and say, “See—that never happened.” Lazarus—he dead. Or, I guess, it could be as some other legends suggest: Lazarus still hasn’t died, but still walks the earth, never smiling because he saw of the souls of the unredeemed in Hades. Boo!
This story of Lazarus is hard to take. We live in the era of World War Z, The Night of the Living Dead, and The Walking Dead. So when we hear in the creed that we believe in the resurrection of the body, we might think, “Well, we might believe that but I sure don’t. No zombie religion for me!” Of course, Lazarus is not a zombie. He is Lazarus, the same man that his sisters laid in the tomb, just—not dead. You assume the smell is gone—but maybe not from the burial cloths. And I have to say, the resurrection from the dead is not this Lazarus, coming out of the tomb, a mummy that will become what all mummies end up becoming—a tourist attraction. This isn’t it at all. Just like the wine at the wedding of Cana isn’t quite the thing itself, either. It’s good—but on its own it’s not quite enough.
It would be a disappointment, wouldn’t it, in so many ways, if this was the whole story. Lazarus comes back, sure—but anyone who has suffered through the final seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer knows that this may not be the best trade. You still have to die again, go through the whole thing again. Even all the wine at Cana will eventually get drunk, and you’ll have to make more. And what with the divorce rate—who knows if it will all be worth it? No, Lazarus is going to die again. This is a temporary reprieve. What we hear about today is not the resurrection of the body.
Death is not so easy to defeat. It’s the only guarantee given to the living. Even the universe itself will spin and spin until all its gravitational bonds will loose and everything will probably end in icy stillness. So, big picture, walking out a grave isn’t going to cut it. And eventually, there won’t be enough room on earth for everybody to get out and walk around.
Humans like to think in the short to medium term, and we are really good at comparing things to our experience. This leads us to what I call the Great Cruise Ship Theory of Heaven, in which everything up there is like it is here, except much, much better, and free. But God has something else in mind than The Walking Dead.
In Isaiah, we heard, that God will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever.” This is not a return to what was, only better—this is a fundamental change in all things. God doesn’t bring us back from death—God destroys death, swallows it up forever. In Revelation we hear about John’s dream, and he says, “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth…” And this means what it says—that God will make all things new. Indeed, the whole physical direction of this passage is not up to heaven as we might suppose, but actually down and out—God comes down and spreads out to be with human beings, to make God’s home with human beings.
Resurrection is almost too small a term for what will be. It’s too much like resuscitate. New life is more like it—new in every way. It will be like the difference between pay phone and an iPhone. Life itself will be remade, so that the only guarantee of the living is God granting more life.
St. Francis called death “Sister death.” I suppose that it’s because he knew we will pass through death in order to be raised. But death is also an enemy that God destroys. Notice how many tears we have in our readings today—the tears of all people that lie under the shroud of death, the tears of Mary and Jesus himself, the tears of the redeemed who welcome God into their midst.
When God destroys death, there will be no more crying, because God will change life itself. I don’t know how to think about the Resurrection except in this way: that the joy of that life will make any joy we know now insignificant, and render all our griefs into happiness.
When we think of saints, perhaps that’s the way we can think of them—the ones who passed through grief to joy. Even Jesus, the Son of God, passed through grief, but by that grief we have hope.