Jesus says: Not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.
Endurance is intimately associated in the New Testament with the posture of active waiting for the “day of the Lord.” In today’s gospel reading from Luke, Jesus draws our attention to the urgency, the sense of responsibility, and the vigilance that the day of the Lord awakens in those who are waiting for it in faith. This is a theme we’ll hear a lot more about in a few weeks, during the season of Advent.
But after introducing this theme in today’s reading, Jesus places the “day of the Lord” in the background, and directs our gaze to the foreground of Christian persecution. Jesus prophesies about the challenges Christians will suffer at the hands of both public authorities and those people closest to them in their web of human relations. This is a shift from “out there” in space and time to “right here,” to up-close and personal events involving everyday encounters, that must take place first.
As colors turned and leaves fell, trees beckoned us. I often stopping to look and sometimes stretched up mirroring their limbs. For God’s creation is good and wondrously made. Wow. Thank you. As branches also broke, limbs fell, hanging down or collapsing on the ground. I also stopped to look and sometimes let my arm bend, droop, and hang, feeling the weight of what is broken. O God, have mercy. Bodies hold it all, our diverse and competing truths. As I pray with my body, trees are teaching me to pray both gratitude and grief, including at the same time. [i]
Among the calamities of 2020, a plague of locusts caused a food shortage for millions of people across dozens of countries in the Middle East and Africa. The prophet Joel wrote to people who had experienced such crisis. Joel describes locusts “like the crackling of a flame of fire devouring stubble, like a powerful army drawn up for battle. Before them, people are in anguish, all faces grow pale.”[ii] Joel wrote that the long awaited Day of the Lord would come like such a frightening plague.
“Blow the trumpet in Zion, sound the alarm on my holy mountain! … Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your heart and not your clothing. Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.”[iii]
Today we celebrate All Souls Day. We ‘celebrate’? How can we celebrate when shortly we shall be remembering by name before God our loved ones who have died, and whom we so miss?
‘Behold, I tell you a mystery! We shall not all die, but we shall all be changed. In a moment, in a twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible.’ Those amazing, thrilling words from St Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. I can never read them without hearing Handel’s Messiah ringing in my ears! And they are words which tell us just what it is that we are celebrating today. We are celebrating what lies at the very heart of our faith as Christians. Jesus truly died, and yet was raised to life by God. And all who have faith in Jesus, although we too will die, will also be raised to life by God. Paul goes on to proclaim in ringing terms, ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory. Where O death is your sting? The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.’ The promise and hope of resurrection, of new life, IS our gospel as Christians. It seems to me that so much in life points to this. Just as winter leads to spring, so death and resurrection, loss and hope, seem to penetrate the very fabric of life itself.
John 10: 22-30
‘It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon.’ ‘It was winter.’ I have been to Jerusalem in the winter, and there was snow on the ground, and it was bitterly cold. We think of Jesus in light, flowing robes and sandals, preaching in warm and sunny climes. But not in our Gospel today. John tells us very specifically that ‘it was winter.’ Usually John marks time by referring to the Jewish religious festivals, but here, very pointedly, he tells us that it was winter. As so often for John, seemingly insignificant words carry a profound, symbolic meaning. ‘It was winter, it was night…’
This story at the end of chapter 10 marks the climax of several chapters describing the increasingly hostile controversies between Jesus and the Jewish leaders. Here on this winter’s day, in the very temple itself, the words become ever more cold and bitter. Jesus finally seals his fate by declaring unequivocally, “The Father and I are one”, and the Jews pick up stones to stone him to death.
It was winter in Narnia, when those children in C. S. Lewis’ much-loved stories, first entered through the wardrobe into that magical land. Lucy went first. ‘She was standing in the middle of a wood, with snow under her feet and snowflakes falling through the air. “Why is it winter here?” “The witch has made it always winter and never Christmas. But Aslan is on the move.”’
We never thought today would be like this, never considered we could lose so much. Death keeps shattering us, our plans and expectations with loss upon loss. Everything is upended. We are sad, so sad at all that has happened and is happening. It is confusing. Life is so strange. Things don’t make sense anymore. What in the world happens next?
Two companions are talking this way on the road to Emmaus, sharing grief. They talk of Jesus, their friend, whom they expected would save them, but who was betrayed, killed, and buried. There is talk of the body missing, and people supposedly seeing angels.
We are talking this way, talking much of our grief at so much death and loss. Talking of we have lost or fear losing: loved ones, health, employment, plans, and direction. The disorientation of life upended: staying at home, now all the time with the same people or so starkly alone, of aching added work or loss of work, with little idea what’s next or when this will change.
As the two walk to Emmaus, Jesus comes and walks alongside. They don’t recognize the one whom they most love and grieve. He is a stranger to them. Jesus asks about their conversation, sees and hears their sadness, and then shares about his own suffering, talking through scripture.
God, help me. Come quickly. “O Lord, make haste to help me,” cries the Psalmist. “Let those who seek after my life be ashamed. … I am poor and needy.” Don’t delay. “You are my helper.” The psalmist pleads, protests what is wrong, and trusts. You are my helper. You are my God.
About half of the psalms are laments. Lament is a cry of pain, a cry for help, and a cry of trust. Lament is stark and boldly real about pain and suffering, and it assumes being heard. Tonight we will chant Tenebrae, a service of shadows, with lament psalms and haunting solos from Lamentations about people abandoned, isolated, cut-off, and grieving. Though we chant psalms like these all year, tonight they come together in a particular prayer for Holy Week. Jesus was troubled in spirit, and so are we, especially now. The Surgeon General said this may be the “hardest and saddest week” for our country.[i]
Ezekiel 37:1-14 & John 11:1-45
Lord, he whom you love is ill.
Mortal, can these bones live?
This illness does not lead to death.
And they lived and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.
The words of Scripture we hear on this Fifth Sunday in Lent vibrate with a unique beauty, power, and density. Bones and sinew; breath and skin and stench; illness and tears; rattling and sighing and loud, crying voices; graves opened, hands unbound, feet planted on native soil. These scenes from Ezekiel and the gospel of John captivate us again and again because the intensifying momentum of their drama unfolds amid the props and set pieces of the everyday. These are passages filled with the raw materials of familiar, sensory experience: bones fit together and sinews stretch; tears tremble and spill over; stench assaults and offends; breath makes hair stand on end. Bones and sinew, breath and tears orient us on the way through stories that become slowly less familiar, more surreal, more densely charged with a mysterious meaning rising from the deep. We blink and stare in disbelief as the invisible power, beauty, and density of God’s ways is made visible – so undeniably visible that our gawking melts into gazing as it is met by the unblinking eyes of Love. In John’s vocabulary, this is glory: the manifest presence of God.
Lord, he whom you love is ill.
Mortal, can these bones live?
This illness does not lead to death.
Rather, it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.
Yesterday was Veterans Day – also known throughout the world as Remembrance or Armistice Day. It marks the armistice signed in Compiègne, France, between the Allies and Germany at the 11th hour, on the eleventh day of the eleventh month, 1918, which brought an end to hostilities on the Western Front in the First World War. A time to remember with thanksgiving those who died in the two world wars.
For several years prior to my coming to the Monastery I was a parish priest. A number of us pastors in the area took a monthly rotation as a night chaplain in the local community hospital. During these night shifts, we chaplains would spend most of our time on-call in the intensive care unit and in the emergency room, helping care for very sick, sometimes traumatized patients, family members, and the medical staff. On more than a few occasions I recall standing beside a hospital gurney that was weighted down by a tragedy-in-the-making, and my having little or nothing to say to the patient or loved ones or to the staff. What we often shared in those moments were tears, but I had few, if any, words. What’s to be said? Less rather than more, and for several reasons.