White Swans in a Green Field (homily)
March 29, 2009
Fifth Sunday of Lent
A friend of mine died last month and I had the honor of doing her memorial service, at a bar in Brownsville. I stood by the bar and talked about her life and what she hoped for, trying to project my voice as best I could.
I didn’t raise her from the dead, the way Jesus raises Lazarus in the gospel today. Jesus didn’t raise her from the dead. Not yet. But the honor of her memorial has stayed with me, and the loyalty of her friends, and just the quiet beauty of that moment.
And on the way back from Brownsville, in a field of winter wheat, I saw a whole flock of swans. White swans. Hundreds of them. Nibbling on the green shoots. And it was so beautiful and so striking I actually said aloud, as I was driving, “OK, Lord.” OK. Because it was obvious to me for a moment that even in sadness there is meaning and even in sadness there is life and the thread of hope. I can’t explain it exactly. I can’t translate out what the moment means. But it was a moment and it’s stayed with me and it’s helped me.
I’ve been reading a little Teilhard de Chardin over my spring break, the great twentieth century Jesuit paleontologist and theologian, and he talks about how the language of Christianity has to change. It’s become outdated, he thinks, given our new understanding of nature and of the quantum universe. “In fact,” he says, “the best non-believers I know would feel that they were falling short of their moral ideal if they went through the gesture of conversion.” I know non-believers like this, too. I work with them and teach them all the time. Any mention of God, any mention of Jesus, any use of the traditional language of the Church, of the Resurrection and the Life, would just scare them away. As Chardin puts it, “by dint of repeating and developing in the abstract the expression of our dogmas, we are well on the way to losing ourselves in the clouds.” We have to change. “Christ must be born again in a world that has become too different from that in which he lived.”
I know that Lazarus was raised from the dead. I know there were swans in that field. But how can I share that knowledge with people who run from the very mention of the word God? The reality of Christ is unchanging. Christ is completely and absolutely true. But how can we get beyond the limits of the language of the past and the limits of our own language to the energy that endures and the spirit and the truth, the life that runs through our DNA, through all the physical universe, and transcends it?
It was also my honor to accompany my friend in the last few months of her life, as she died. She asked me to be there. She conferred on me that honor. So I came and saw her several times a week in the Mennonite home, reading her the Psalms or talking with her, as long as she could talk. It was my first experience with this and what surprised me was how much energy it gave me, how much grace. I looked forward to seeing her.
The night she died her family left me a message at my office on campus, but the next day I left to see her from home. So I didn’t know. I walked down the hall and went into her room. And there was her bed, neatly made up with a quilt. A Bible on the pillow. And for a moment what I felt, oddly, was disappointment. Just disappointment that I couldn’t see her that day and spend time with her.
This is what I mean. This is what I know. How to explain it?
Please understand. I’m not saying don’t believe. I’m saying: believe everything.
I’m not saying there aren’t any miracles anymore. I’m saying there are miracles everywhere.
Jean Vanier talks about all this, too. Vanier is the contemporary Catholic layman who founded L’Arche, the Ark, a program that creates communities in which people live and work with the developmentally disabled, not just helping them but being helped. “People who are powerless and vulnerable,” he says, “attract what is most beautiful and most luminous in those who are stronger.”
And in another essay Vanier explores the same issue that Chardin is exploring, the same question that I’m trying to ask:
"I can really understand atheists [he says]. I can really understand people who proclaim that they do not believe in God because what they are saying is that they do not believe in false gods. They do not believe in a romantic God that just blesses human beings by making them rich. They do not believe in a God who is going to punish them. Some atheists, who refuse to believe in these false gods, have a deep sense of the human heart and a deep sense of human reality."
Whenever we read the Bible we have the challenge of embracing the God of mystery and complexity or of falling back on some convenient image that will either be easy to reject or that will give us some easy comfort. What does it mean to us now that Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead? What did John want us to believe?
I’m really sure that he didn’t want us to believe that Jesus was a superhero or a magician. He could have been, of course. He could have been anything. But what would that mean? What difference would that make? I’m really sure that John didn’t want us to walk around thinking that nothing will ever hurt us and that we don’t have to do the hard and joyous work of living everyday as fully and honestly as we can.
I think he was talking about our tombs. I think he was calling us to free ourselves from what binds us--from all our false notions, all our easy answers--and to break out of the tombs of our lack of imagination, our lack of subtlety, our lack of spontaneity and trust and hope. “Those who do not believe in God,” Vanier says, “have not met the true God, and the true God I believe deeply has been revealed to us by Jesus, who comes to undermine all the fortresses built on fear. Jesus comes to touch our hearts in the deepest cravings of our being.”
What is it we crave? What is it we fear?
Or a final image.
Deacons are not allowed to do the anointing of the sick, but once with my friend I did something kind of similar. I bought some essential oil from a health food store, some concentrated scent of rose, and put a little on her hands. It was very strong. It filled the room. In fact, at first I thought I’d made a mistake, I thought I’d never get it off my own hands and my clothes. But then, back at OSU, as I answered my emails and taught my classes, I realized what the gift was. That she was with me. I was carrying her with me.
And the white swans in the green field. And the friends at the bar. And spring. Just spring, and the birds coming back, and the daffodils and the tulips.
This is what I mean.
Who says there aren’t any burning bushes anymore? Who says?
Who says we don’t rise from the dead?