Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil: for you are with me;
your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
The shadow of death has been cast across the world: here in Europe, and in the USA it is particularly dark at the moment; and who knows where it may fall next? Death, which had been almost completely pushed out of our minds and our lives is now out again and walking our streets. There is real, and justified, fear. The older you are, and the more other conditions you have, the more the danger. But the virus is no respecter of persons.
In these days we have no choice but to face again the reality of death. We continue to pray that the number of those who die may be kept as small as possible, but each individual death is an immeasurable catastrophe for those who grieve. However few or many there may be, in our own communities, our own countries or around the world, the fact of death is now present to us in a way that Western culture at least has tried to avoid. Those who sadly die are surrounded by a far greater number who walk into the shadow of death, who encounter the frailty of their mortal bodies as breathing becomes difficult, even impossible without oxygen. Around all of them again are the medical staff who care for them, and their anxious friends and family, often unable to be in touch with their loved ones who are ill. Death has broken out of its prison in care home and hospital, it is no longer an occasional and extraordinary visitor. Naturally, many of us are afraid, and perhaps those who are not afraid are not paying attention. The question then is how to respond to that fear. How do we live, live fully and freely, in the light of the death we can no longer ignore?
The readings set for this Sunday are all about death – and life. In the valley full of dry bones, bones with no possible life left in them, Ezekiel is commanded by God to bring them back to life. That life comes not with the restoration of their physical bodies, but when the breath of the Lord comes back into them. Then they live, and stand up. Jesus comes too late to heal Lazarus – three days too late. He is very definitely dead. And then Jesus summons Lazarus back, the dead man recalled to life. As he comes from the tomb Jesus says ‘unbind him, and let him go’. This being John’s gospel, we are right to look for more than one meaning in Jesus’ words. Lazarus is cut free from the physical shroud, which symbolises his being cut free from the cords of death, and let go back into the world of this life.
These scriptures bring us into the presence of death only in order to show, in dramatic form, that death is no equal to the life-giving power of God. We do not live in a world in which the powers of life and death slug it out like two evenly matched boxers, wearing each other down but neither able to prevail. The biblical message is that life always prevails because God is its source and also its end. Through whatever journey it may need to take, the destiny of all life is to be folded up into the everlasting life of God. It is that promise that Paul sets out in this Sunday’s other reading, from his letter to the Romans:
If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.
These readings are chosen for today because today we begin to look towards the cross. As Lent draws towards its end, the focus narrows towards the events we remember in Holy Week, of Jesus’ last days in his earthly ministry. We are invited in reflecting on these scriptures to place them in the context of Jesus’ death – and to be reminded through them of his resurrection. These two weeks of Passiontide are bearable because of what concludes them, the event which opens up a new world of resurrection. But that resurrection life lies on the other side of Good Friday.
Jesus went to Jerusalem, walking into the valley, knowing the death that awaited him. In different parts of the world, we are in different parts of the coronavirus valley (or peak). In the UK, we are just beginning our journey through the darkest part, as numbers of cases and deaths mount up and up. Jesus went to his death so that our own journey into the shadow need never be alone, need never be the end.
Beside every person in hospital, struggling to breathe, Christ sits and suffers. Death by crucifixion was in part a death of suffocation; literally, Jesus has been where they are. By his Spirit, he connects those who cannot be physically together, as he prays for us all to the Father.
However dark our valley, however real and present our fear, we can also know that fear is not the last word, just as death is not. The word that overcomes death is life; the word that overcomes fear is love.