a reflection written for St Margaret Newlands
Today is Passion Sunday. Next week it will be Palm Sunday. Today is also our second Sunday with no church services and our first Sunday in Covid-19 lock-down. Many of us may be feeling isolated, pent up, disorientated. Meanwhile, Lent is moving us steadily towards the challenges and the depths of Holy Week, towards our time of thinking about the passion – the suffering – of Christ. This is a strange and unsettling time and it seems both highly appropriate and a bit overwhelming that the liturgical calendar is heading towards the contemplation of Christ’s suffering and death, just as we hear the growing numbers of people who have tested positive for Covid-19 and, even harder, the numbers of people who have died. So many lives have been affected. And in this situation of death and life under what for us are unprecedented restrictions, we are presented with the passages set for today, which speak hope into times of darkness and life into times of death.
One thing that struck me on reading these passages in our current situation is how much closer death and dying were to earlier generations. Times of darkness, illness and death are not new, but these days we here in the west and the north have little experience of pandemics and plague and perhaps we are no longer used to dealing with this kind of crisis collectively. That was different in the past, when Catherine of Siena and her companions cared for the sick and dying in the midst of the Black Death, or when Luther and Melanchthon mentioned in their correspondence that Wittenberg University had been closed on account of plague and the students and professors dispersed. Even a century ago, isolation hospitals, fever hospitals, quarantine periods and other measures to contain infectious illness would have been a part of familiar life, something that people were used to. We are privileged to live in a world in which most of us are pretty healthy most of the time (alhough our current situation has brought home to me just how little it takes, statistically speaking, to merit a huge disruption to all our lives, and some of our livelihoods). But suddenly, everything feels precarious.
Where is God in all this? Today’s readings affirm that God is with us in all of this, and they remind us too that there will be a new beginning after this present crisis.
Our passage from Ezekiel takes us into the valley of the dry bones. Reading the text anew, I find myself wondering what disaster of battle or plague had caused them to be lying there, these unburied bones? The image resonates strongly for me with the pictures we have seen of the dead lying unburied in Italy, in France, because capacity, and coffins are not there to bury them. It resonates for me also with the ruins of the hopes and plans and things to do that I and so many of us had over the coming weeks and months. Lives cut short and plans abandoned. “Can these bones live?” God asks Ezekiel. Ezekiel replies: “God, only you know the answer to that question.” And God breathes life into the bones. The utter dried up hopelessness is given a new beginning.
Our gospel reading takes us to the home of Martha and Mary as they mourn the death of their brother Lazarus. He has died and been buried, and Jesus did not come in time. And so the sisters, their family and their friends mourn their brother, son, cousin, nephew, friend, Lazarus. This story resonates with the grief of all those who have lost a relative or friend to covid-19, with all those who wait anxiously to hear news of those who have been infected or are ill, with all who are living with the pain and suffering caused by other illnesses. It resonates also with the bereft feeling that comes with being shut out of our churches, deprived of the rhythms of worship, of school and work, the patterns of our days. And Jesus calls Lazarus back to life. Those who are grieving are given a new perspective.
These are not cheap promises. Our valley may remain full of dry bones for a while and our brothers and sisters, sons, daughters, mothers and fathers may remain in the tomb. Nonetheless what we have here is a promise of two things that are central to this liturgical season. One is the theology of Good Friday: that Christ is with us at all times, even when he and we are hanging on the cross. Christ shares this dark time with us. That is the promise of Good Friday and it is something to come back to again and again in this challenging time. And the other is the certain resurrection hope of Easter, that is promised to us even when we cannot quite understand it, which is kept alive in what Margaret Adam describes in her book Our Only Hope as “friendship in Christ … local, neighborhood, workplace, small-scale friendship that does not change when circumstances change, when prospects look dim, and when life as we know it is changing.”
Today, on Passion Sunday, we enter into a Passiontide which this year may extend beyond its liturgical season and the feast of Easter. This Passiontide is likely to confront us particularly starkly with the reality of suffering, death and despair. It is important that in the midst of fear and death we also hold onto the promise of the Easter that is surely coming. We will keep Easter this year, when we get there, in whatever way we can, as a reminder that this too will pass. We will keep Easter this year in the confidence that the hope we proclaim is, as Margaret Adam writes, “not limited by the circumstances of a broken and limited world.” Julian of Norwich, whose visions began after she nearly died, perhaps of the plague, wrote that God spoke to her in her own time of crisis, saying: “all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.” We will live through this long Passiontide with a “theological hope undaunted by disaster.” We will keep Easter in the conviction that the time is coming when Jesus will speak to us too (to use the words of Janet H. Hunt): “Come out of your losses, your fears, your despairs, your unsettled griefs. Come out of your too long winters and your weeks full of too much suffering. Come out now. For we are not done with this world yet, Jesus seems to be saying, and it surely is not done with us. Come out and live!”
 Margaret Adam, Our Only Hope (Eugene OR: Wipf & Stock 2013), p. 222.
 Adam, Our Only Hope, p. 12.
 Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love, 13th revelation, chapter 27; online at: https://www.gutenberg.org/files/52958/52958-h/52958-h.htm.
 Adam, Our Only Hope, p. 222.
 Janet H. Hunt, “Looking for Crocuses” (30 Marc 2014); online at http://words.dancingwiththeword.com/2014/03/looking-for-crocuses.html.