Saturday, November 03, 2012

All Saints

You don't hear much about St Lazarus.  In fact, up until this week, when I checked, I wasn't even sure Lazarus was an official saint, but he is – the Orthodox makes a rather bigger deal of St Lazarus than the Western Church, and celebrate his feast the day before Palm Sunday, which they call Lazarus Saturday.  Inconveniently enough, the forty days fast of Lent – which our Orthodox brothers and sisters take very seriously indeed, end the day before Lazarus Saturday, which is also designated a fast day – as a concession, in Russia at least, on Lazarus Saturday one is permitted to eat caviar.

I was delighted to discover a few traditions about St Lazarus, who according to the Orthodox Church was buried for the second and final time on Cyprus, where he became the first bishop of what is now Larnaca.  One tradition that intrigued me was that for the 30 years between his first and second funerals, St Lazarus never smiled – haunted by the memory of all the unredeemed souls he had seen during his four-day stay in Hades.  Either that, or the fate of being brought back from the dead only to wind up a bishop, I imagine.  At any rate, the church of St Lazarus was built in Larnaca in 892 AD, and during renovations in 1972 a marble sarcophagus was found under the altar with human remains presumably proving that this time the saint stayed put.

 Essentially, though, Lazarus' role both in the Gospel and in the tale of his second life on the other side of the tomb is pretty passive.  We know that he was loved – by his sisters Mary and Martha of Bethany, and also by Jesus – and that perhaps is the most important thing about him.  In fact over recent years there has even been speculation that Lazarus might have been the 'beloved disciple' of the Fourth Gospel – the disciple who is never named, and never even mentioned until after the episode we read this morning.  Interestingly it is the 'beloved disciple' who alone believes in the resurrection when he sees the discarded linen wraps in Jesus' tombs – Lazarus, of course, would have known what they meant.

But in a sense, I think, Lazarus is a sort of 'Everyman' figure.  'Everyman' and 'Everywoman'.  Nothing special about him, except that he is loved.  And one word stands out for me, in today's Gospel reading.  Stands out even more, if you read this in the formal 16th century language of the King James version.  'But Lord, he stinketh'.  After four days lying in the tomb, he stinketh.  There is no life in him.

And that makes Lazarus even more of an Everyman, because it is in St Lazarus that we see what Jesus does for us, as well.  If you'll excuse the metaphor - we are all dead and lifeless. Trussed up like corpses, confined in the grave clothes which the false priorities of the world wrap around us. Swaddled in our own contradictions and slaves to our own self-interest, we are all stiff and lifeless and frankly we have all begun to smell a little bit iffy.

Until – Jesus calls us out of the tomb. Until he orders everything that binds us and holds us down, to be stripped off of us and tossed aside. Until he breathes his holy breath into us again and makes us a new creation, free to love and live the way God intended us to.

The Body of Christ, the community of the baptized, and the Communion of Saints – which is to say the Church visible and the Church invisible - we are all Lazarus. We stinketh, until Jesus calls us out, frees us, and gives us life. In fact this is what binds us together, saints living and dead: we have all been called out of the tomb and set free.  Not because we are special, but because we are loved.

So St Lazarus – the saint who is special just for being loved – is a helpful saint for our own reflections on the feast of All Saints – the feast of the Church that celebrates the ordinary lives of men and women who have lived and loved and passed from living memory.

I want this morning to make two further observations or helpful hints about being a saint that St John of Patmos drops in our reading from Revelation.  And the first is this: St John in his vision of heaven reports hearing the voice of God saying, "See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them."

Because the fact is that what makes us saints – hagios, or holy ones – is not our own behaviour which most of the time is fairly ordinary.  What makes us holy is God's continuing incarnate presence among us, sharing our own DNA, our own flesh and blood physical existence.  What makes us holy is - to translate a phrase from the fourth Gospel literally - that God pitches a tent among us.  John of Patmos's vision of heaven is not a vision of the end of time, or of the hereafter, but a vision of all time rolled into a single instant, the whole of eternity in which God becomes incarnate, takes on flesh in the act of creation.   What is revealed to us in Jesus of Nazareth is not just God's one-off attempt to communicate with us and then go back up to heaven for a well-earned rest - but God's universe-long strategy for loving and caring for creation – God's life is woven into the fabric of creation, our lives in all their ordinariness and all their physicality are made holy because the world we live in is God's body and God's home.  And so, as God's people we live in a world of accident and impermanence, struggling with the paradox of our own moral compromise, our hearts capable of both love and deceit in approximately equal measure – but at the same time filled with the beauty of God's own life.  As St Paul puts it, we have the unspeakable treasure of God-with-us in the nondescript clay jars of our everyday lives.  And just every now and then – particularly when the clay jars of our lives get cracked, the beauty of God shines through.  And that's what makes us holy.  That's how we grow to perfection, not in our own goodness, but in our weakness filled with God's holiness.

And in the second half of today's reading from Revelation, God's voice thunders out of heaven, "behold, I am making all things new".  It's a promise, but it's also a process.  French Jesuit theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin wrote that creation out of nothing as a massive whizz-bang event after which God takes the rest of eternity off is not only unbelievable but basically unlike what we know about God in Jesus.  Teilhard worked out the idea of what he called creative transformation – the Spirit of God, he thought, providing the creative juice to make stuff that is already in existence get together in new ways, to bring new possibilities out of tired matter – much more exciting and also more credible to reflect that God is creating all the time, that God is creating the future ahead of us and inviting us into it, that God is creating us moment by moment so that our future is not determined by the limitations of our past, but opening up into the newness and the creative energy of the Spirit.  Or, as God puts it in Revelation: "Behold, I am making all things new".  I remember being at a Diocesan conference some years ago when tempers frayed a bit over some proposal, when all concerned were visibly trying their hardest to remember that we were supposed to be listening together for the voice of the Holy Spirit, not raising our own – and the speaker paused for a few seconds and muttered, "well, perhaps God's still working on us".  Saints get cranky, saints have muddleheaded ideas, sometimes they're intolerant and unattractive and just plain exasperating.  Sometimes, mercifully, they're none of those things.  But above all, saints are loved and lived-in human beings glimpsed mid-transformation, unfinished, a work in progress.  To be a saint means being open to the future, because it's the future, not the past, into which God's creative energy is leading you and making you complete.  To be a saint means being open to change, constantly looking for evidence of what God's Holy Spirit is doing around you, curious to see what God's going to get up to next, because the Trinitarian promise is that transformation and newness are built in to the life of God – and if you want to be a saint that's what you've signed up for.  To be a saint means practicing living life from the inside out – noticing that the latest and the most exciting place God has become incarnate is in you, daring yourself to let God's life transform the shallowness and the selfishness of your own.

Seems to me that Lazarus, having been unbound and given a good bath and something to eat would have been curious.  Whether or not he ever smiled again – and I prefer to think he would not only have smiled but also laughed, frequently – he must have wondered, why him?  What is the meaning of this new life into which he has awoken? What is it for?  Near-death experiences make us think deeply about life, resolve to relish every moment and to use it for something worthwhile.  Saints like you and me and Lazarus – transformed from stinkers into sweet-smelling lovers of life – wake up into a brand new day and toss off the bed sheets and have a coffee and ask in wonder – 'now what surprises has God got in store for me today?'