This is part three in a four-part special Easter weekend series.
Back in Asia, the place I lived was called S Street. It wasn’t very nice there. Cheap-traveling backpackers crowded buck-fifty a night hostels together with rats and bed bugs. S Street was also very congested. There were cars, taxis, bicycles, wagons, aggressive street venders, drug dealers and beggar children. Every inch of space was used by someone for some purpose. A mother with two tiny daughters lived on the sidewalk corner just outside my hostel.
And there was an awful lot of trash on S Street, too, which didn’t seem to bother anyone but me. But one day I noticed a man cleaning out the embankment in front of an ugly apartment building which was particularly overrun by refuse. I asked him what he was doing. “Oh,” he said cheerily, “I’m going to clean out this garbage and plant a garden.” “Is that so?” I asked (thinking he was just a half bubble off plumb). “Yes,” he said. “I asked the owner of this building and he said I could. He thinks I’m crazy, but that’s okay. I’m going to plant fruit trees here so that one day when I’m an old man this place will be beautiful and I’ll be able to sit in the shade with my grandchildren” (and the thought of living on S Street in my retirement years was to me utterly depressing).
I nodded skeptically, but secretly I was impressed. Later that afternoon I bumped into him again at a café while he was sharing his dream with other locals. “Man, you’re crazy,” they said. “This is S Street, not the botanical gardens. Get a grip!” And so I started calling him Noah—crazy Noah—that guy who built an ark to save his family and anyone else who wanted to preserve his or her life from the coming flood. Crazy Noah was planting a garden this time, a garden that would save his family from the soul-destroying ugliness of S Street. In return, Noah planted a special orange tree in my honor.
In Ezekiel 37, the children of Israel are in captivity in Babylon, confused and crushed. A prophet is taken to a valley of dry bones that reflects in living color the collective ache of God’s people:
The hand of the Lord was upon me, and he brought me out in the Spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of the valley; it was full of bones. And he led me around among them, and behold, there were very many on the surface of the valley, and behold, they were very dry.
Most of us have never been exiled. In fact, there may be many reading this who have never experienced great pain at all. But each one of us, in our own small way, dies a death—or many deaths—during our time on this planet: The loss of loved ones, rejection, betrayal, the collapse of dreams. As we explored on Friday, we can respond by ignoring it, denying it, or by being present to it (like John the beloved). We can take in the agony of Christ and allow ourselves, symbolically, to die with him— fully engaged, fully awake.
And so here you lie, I lie, like the dry bones on the bottom of the valley floor. And God asks Ezekiel, “Son of man, can these bones live?” And Ezekiel answers, “Oh Lord, only you know.”
I’m sure John and the other disciples spent a lonely Saturday together at the end of Friday’s crucifixion. After falling asleep exhausted and waking up to cry some more, maybe someone tried to remember the various sayings of their Lord. Was there, anywhere, a scrap of hope that could consol their aching hearts?
Then maybe the disciple Thaddeus (why not?) says, “Hey, do you guys remember when Jesus turned over the tables in the temple and those priests got so angry? They asked him what he was doing and he said that if the temple was destroyed he could restore it again in three days.”
John answered, “Yeah, I remember. They used that against him at his trial, you know. I was there; I saw it. Peter was there too (well, for a little bit). I wish Jesus hadn’t been so bold or he might still be with us. But then, I guess we wouldn’t have loved him so much if he were any different.”
They all nod and cry a few more tears. Then Thaddeus speaks up again: “I just wonder what that meant. Later Jesus said he was going to Jerusalem and would be betrayed, but that he would live again and that we should watch and be ready.” “Yes, I remember,” says Thomas. “But what does that mean? It was probably some kind of symbol.”
And so the disciples begin to wonder what kind of truth Jesus might have been alluding to in his curious statements. An unreal sliver of a hope is born, almost like a delusional fantasy. In the intensity of their grief, perhaps some of them wonder if they really are losing it.
For the disciples in that upper room, anything might have been true except for the one thing that was true. They did not expect a real, live resurrection.
It would be like dry bones coming back to life.
In Matthew 24 Jesus says “Stay awake, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. You must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.” This text need not apply only to the Second Advent. It can apply to the disciples despairing together in the upper room. It can apply right now, right where you are, right where I am, right where the world is. Jesus may burst in upon our brokenness at any moment with love and healing. Dry bones just might live again. Noah’s trash heap may indeed become a garden. (Perhaps my street prophet was not so crazy after all…)
And maybe, just maybe, Jesus might rise from the dead tomorrow morning.
It’s important to remember that this possibility only opens to us after we have looked death in the face, offered it as a gift, and waited expectantly with nothing but our empty selves. As writes Richard Rohr, director of the Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, New Mexico,
‘Come Lord Jesus,’ the Advent mantra, means that all of Christian history has to live out of a kind of deliberate emptiness, a kind of chosen non-fulfillment. Perfect fullness is always to come and we do not need to demand it now. This keeps the field of life wide open and especially open to grace and to a future created by God rather than by ourselves. This is exactly what it means to be “awake,” as the Gospel urges us!
Saturday afternoon calls us to really live from our brokenness. Rich Mullins, one of my all-time greatest heroes, wrote a song called We Are Not as Strong as we Think we Are:
When you love you walk on water, but just don’t stumble on the waves. We all wanna go there something awful, but to stand there it takes some grace ‘cause, oh, we are not as strong as we think we are.
We are frail; we are fearfully and wonderfully made, forged in the fires of human passion, choking on the fumes of selfish rage. And with these our hells and our heavens so few inches apart, we must be awfully small and not as strong as we think we are.
As we live from this awareness, we are empowered to see the impossible possibility of Sunday morning, like Peter walking on water. Only when his eyes were off himself could he receive the Master’s daring invitation.
So what happened to Noah? I don’t know, actually. I’ve been back to S Street several times since that incident with the garden and I’ve never seen him again. But S Street is beautiful (at least, one small section of it!) My orange tree is now substantial and I’m so grateful that Noah cherished hope in that dark and forsaken corner of his city. Maybe one day Noah will be sitting there with his grandchildren. Perhaps others will also catch his vision, plant a garden, and beautify the whole street for all their little ones.
And what about those poor disciples cowering in fear on Saturday? What about the millions of children who die yearly because of hunger? How about those who have lost beloved friends and family members, those who struggle with mental or physical illness, or those who have been told they won’t amount to anything in life? What about those struggling with various types of existential anxiety, or the rejected, betrayed and alone? Friday is still a present reality. But on Saturday we journey through that death, explore its tragedy, and discover hope for a new day. Mother Teresa once said,
Remember that the passion of Christ ends always in the joy of the Resurrection. So when you feel in your own hear the suffering of Christ, remember the Resurrection has to come, the joy of Easter has to dawn. Never let anything so fill you with sorrow as to make you forget the joy of the Risen Christ.
Now here’s the rest of the dry bones story. God said to Ezekiel,
‘Prophecy over these bones, and say to them, “O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones, ‘Behold I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. And I will lay sinews upon you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live, and you shall know that I am the Lord.’”’ So I prophesied as I was commanded. And as I prophesied, there was a sound, and behold, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. And I looked, and behold, there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them. But there was no breath in them. Then he said to me, ‘Prophesy to the breath; prophecy, son of man prophecy and say to the breath, “Thus says the Lord God: Behold, I will open your graves and raise you, O my people And I will bring you into the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and raise you. And I will put my Spirit—my breath—within you, and you shall live, and I will place you in your own land. Then you shall know that I am the Lord; I have spoken, and I will do it, declares the Lord.'
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/2291