|Raising of Lazarus, by Giotto, 1306. Scrovegni Chapel, Padua, Italy.|
“The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, ‘Unbind him, and let him go.’”
As we prepare to see a parade of ghosts, ghouls, monsters, mummies this Saturday, even our gospel for All Saints’ Day includes a dead man wrapped in bandages. How apropos.
All Saints’ Day is also one of the days in the calendar of the Church on which baptisms are encouraged. At the parish where I am serving as seminarian, we will have a temporary altar with ofrenda, or offerings and mementos, on it to commemorate our loved ones who have passed away, especially within the previous year. We will also celebrate a baptism. We will remember those who have been saints in this life as we also welcome a new Christian into the Body of Christ. Loving hands will hand over that baby, and other loving hands will pour the waters of baptism over her head, symbolizing death and new life and the hopes of a family and a congregation. It’s a particular blessing that, in the Episcopal Church, baptisms are performed in the midst of the main worship service, to remind us of how we are woven together into one fabric, one body, one hope, one faith, one promise.
The gospel we will hear before that baptism will be the story from John of Jesus weeping over his friend Lazarus, and calling him forth, not into his old life, but into a new life-- a life of resurrection and hope. It is a story of death and life held in tension, as of course it is for us all at every moment. But it’s the last words in this story that capture my attention. Lazarus can’t really be free of the prison of death until he is unbound-- with the help of others.
We Americans in particular take great pride in the belief that each person is completely responsible for his or her lot in life. The myth of the “Self-Made Man” or “Woman” looms large over the cultural landscape, especially at election time (which seems to never end). And this is one myth that I am certain does no one any favors. It leads to denigration and shame on the part of those viewed as “unsuccessful,” and to hubris and self-delusion on the part of those who are considered “fortunate.” Yet a vital part of the miracle of Lazarus’s resurrection is not just his new life, but his restoration to the community.
Perhaps Lazarus’s bandages symbolize all that holds us within the grip of sin and death, separating us from true communion with God and each other: our angers, our jealousies, our vanities, our competitiveness which always comes at the expense of others, our malaise, our lack of empathy, our compulsion toward dominance and power, and our festering wounds from the past that we often use as excuses-- and simultaneously seem vindictively determined to pass along to others.
We are often unaware of the things that weigh us down, so that grief subsides to grief. We cling to what we know even if it does us no good because that familiarity is more comfortable than getting a hand free to take hold of something better. We gouge out a path of anxiety in not just our hearts but the hearts of those around us. Those old patterns only serve to deny love the power to heal, even when we name that healing as our most ardent wish. Yet, that last line in this story of Lazarus also reminds us even when we answer the call of Christ, there are other loving hands waiting to help free us and welcome us into new life. We can’t always unbind ourselves, but we can be grateful for those who are there to help. It is only when loving hands reach out to release us from our bonds that we can walk free. That’s why Christ calls us to follow him in that fsmily and community known as “Church”- that ragtag rejoicing host of witnesses remembered as saints that extends from antiquity to friends, family, neighbors, and even strangers who themselves are attempting to shed what binds them too.
Lazarus had been shut away, his memory eventually to be forgotten forever, yet the voice of love spoke the breath back into his body. Loving hands helped him discard the raiment of death, and welcomed him back into the light. We long for that quickening, too—to be set free to live with the integrity and compassion that is the foundation of the life to which Jesus calls us to not just imitate but make our own. If we want to be like Lazarus, we have to shed those bindings, with some help at times, so that we can walk out of the dank tomb and feel the light and love of resurrection. All that we leave behind makes us lighter for the journey, and there will be companions with us. The hands that unbind us are just as important as the words that call us into the light, because they witness to us as well about the love of Christ in our lives.
(This was first posted at Episcopal Cafe's Speaking to the Soul on October 30, 2015.)