March 21, 2010
Fifth Sunday of Lent
The poet Maya Angelou is always surprised when people come up and tell her that they’re Christian. Already? she says.
As if for these people Christianity is some kind of achievement. As if Christianity is something they’ve accomplished once and for all. Not a process. Not a life.
And it’s not only arrogant to say this. It’s pessimistic, it’s sad, because it implies that everything good has already happened. That the rest is downhill.
Now that I’ve reached a certain age I sometimes feel this way myself. I’m as good as I’m ever going to be. I know as much as I’m ever going to know. There won’t be any adventure anymore, nothing new and nothing exciting.
But that’s not true, not if I’m really Christian. If I’m really Christian and you’re really Christian we’re never done with becoming Christian, the life of faith is never over, and that means that the adventure is never over.
Mary and Martha and Lazarus had met Jesus already. They had eaten with him and talked with him and become friends of his. How could they have possibly imagined anything better? That was it. That was the peak.
But then when they least expect it, at their lowest moment, something really incredible happens. The adventure starts all over again. Because Lazarus dies, and everyone is of course terribly upset, and then Jesus comes to them again, and he stands at the open tomb, and he calls out in his loud, clear voice, Lazarus, come out.
And Lazarus comes out. He comes out!
Who could have imagined this? Who could have expected this? Here at the last moment and even beyond the last moment, a new thing happens. A wonderful, new thing. And the story isn’t over anymore, it’s not over at all, it’s only beginning.
Because the really amazing thing for Lazarus is that he’s not still done being transformed. The really wonderful thing is that he will get to die again. As Mary gets to die and Martha gets to die and you and I get to die.
I’ve been quoting Teilhard de Chardin a lot lately, and I want to quote him again, because he says something really powerful about death. He talks about it in a way that makes sense to me and that captures its excitement and its transformative power.
God must in some way or other make room for Himself, hollowing us out and emptying us, if He is finally to penetrate into us. And in order to assimilate us in Him, He must break the molecules of our being so as to recast and re-model us. The function of death is to provide the necessary entrance into our inmost selves. It will make us undergo the required disassociation. It will put us into the state organically needed if the divine fire is to descend upon us. And in that way its fatal power to decompose and dissolve will be harnessed to the most sublime operations of life. What was by nature empty and void can, in each human existence, become plenitude and unity in God.
I know that’s a little complicated, but what Chardin is really saying is what the Church has always said. That unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies it is just a grain of wheat. Death is the necessary breaking down. Death is the emptying out, the dissolving, in even just the biochemical way we all know it is. But it’s not just that. It’s not just an emptying out and it’s not just a dissolving. All that is preparation. All that is preliminary to a new and wonderful expansion of the Spirit, a new and wonderful opening up of the story.
One of the arguments against the existence of God or of a just God is that there are wars and there is suffering and children die and innocent people die and a just God wouldn’t let that happen. But that’s to understand life from just within the perspective of life. It’s not to stand back and look at life from the larger perspective of death, and death understood as a stage, a stage of purification and radical change.
When I’m feeling depressed and down because I’m getting older I’m doing the same thing. I’m looking at life in a limited way. I’m looking at death in a limited way. As the end. As something to fear. But it isn’t. It’s a great, great grace. It’s a great thing.
As are all the little deaths in our lives day to day. When we lose an argument. When we lose our energy. When we realize all at once how little control we have over what happens to us and to the people we love. Yes, those are sad moments. Those are real deaths. But we shouldn’t run away from them. We should embrace them. We should enter into them. Because they are teaching us how to die, they are preparing us for the great purification. They are, or they can be, transformative, if we transform our attitude about them. If we see them as what they really are: the beginning of all hope, the beginning of all adventure.
And in the meantime, let’s not rule out the possibility that something wonderful can still happen to us in this life.
To think that it won’t is to presume to know the will of God. To think that it won’t is to presume that God doesn’t want us to be saved, that God doesn’t want us to be happy.
There will be new friends. New triumphs. New experiences. Wonderful things can still happen, and they will happen.
And that problem we can’t solve, that intractable problem, in our families or our work?
Why we do think that if we can’t come up with a solution, there is no solution? If we can’t fix it, it can’t be fixed?
That we know what the future holds?
Why not just wait, in hope?
Why not just wait for Jesus to come?
For Jesus to stand at the tomb.
For Jesus to call out in his loud clear voice,