Lent is a season that gives death its due. It’s a journey through shadows, a conscious going down into the inner valley of bones; of turning one’s face toward, rather than away from, the perpetual crucifixions of this world. It is the season of showing up at the tomb, defeated, broken, lost, forsaken and discovering that it is… Stop. Enough. Let’s not spoil the ending. Can we keep the forty-days without trying to flit like a butterfly over the reality of death?
The cross, our symbol, is a symbol of death. The finality of it. The sometimes brutality of it. It stands, planted in the skull, in solidarity with those whose hearts have been shattered, spirits twisted, with those whose bodies have been violated, who flee from bombs, with those whose home is a subway grate, who daily eat the bread of poverty.
The One who came declaring “abundant life” did not glorify death. Nor did he turn his face from it. To deny the bone-cracking power of death in the world or in ourselves diminishes the stunning reversal of the resurrection. If death is no big deal the resurrection is just party magic. Dying and rising is the pattern, the practice and The Way of Jesus.
Our culture too often puts Jesus in the tomb on Good Friday like toast into a toaster—mundanely confident that he’ll pop up in three days. So Easter arrives like spring with its crocuses—lovely and predictable. It becomes the domain of rabbits delivering eggs, baby-chicks and chocolate. Resurrection-lite.
Over the past 25 years we have witnessed a movement from funerals to family only grave-side ceremonies and Facebook condolences. Last year our congregation hosted one funeral. We are a small church in a small town but one? “Jack wouldn’t want a lot of fuss. We’re just having a come-and-go tea at the Legion.”
“We don’t want a funeral, we want a celebration of Bridget’s life. No tears allowed!” says Bridget’s sister though her tears. And somebody reads a poem: “Death is nothing at all/ I have only slipped away into the next room.” I understand the sentiment—our beloved persists in and among us—but some inner voice, lodged in my own encounters with physical death, wants to shout, “Check the next room—she’s not there!”
All of this is emblematic of a death-denying culture. Personally, I’d like some fuss. Hire mourners if you have to, because my final death and all the deaths along the way are something real, something cosmic, something sacred. So are yours.
Death—physical, moral, spiritual, global—is not an illusion. Death is very much something! The season of Lent, among other things, calls us into to a spirituality of dying that can alone lead to rising. “…unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” (John 12.24, NRSV).
“Can these bones live?” Ezekiel asks, shielding his eyes from the glare of the sun bouncing off a valley chock-a-block full of bleached bones. Some days, peering out over our own brokenness or that of our nation, over the suffering of the world we ask the same question: “Can these bones live?” It’s a good question for Lent. A question to which the chorus scoffs, “Don’t be ridiculous! Dead is dead! It is forever!” There is no way to sugar coat those bones. We either look or we turn away. That is the choice.
Then there is a great roar of rattling of bones, a great rising up in some surprising place and way. Our ice-encased hearts warming, we cry out “Is this possible?” Tears of stunned wonder wet our faces. We find ourselves on our knees, peering into an empty tomb, before even realising that we have fallen into Mystery. Our ribcages expand with air. Our lungs inflate with breath that can only be released in a song of impossible joy, one that can only be sung having known both death and resurrection. Again. And only then does the funeral become a party.