Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Feast of All Saints Year B

Feast of All Saints Year B
(Revised Common Lectionary)

Wisdom of Solomon 3:1-9 OR Isaiah 25:6-9; Psalm 24; Revelation to John 21:1-6a; John 11:32-44

Reflecting extensive exposure to Greek ways of thinking, the "wisdom" attributed to Solomon develops themes that become increasingly important in Christian scriptures, especially Paul's letters, Hebrews and the gospel of John. This excerpt meditates on life after death. The writer declares that "the souls of the righteous are in the hands of God...." To the unenlightened, their death seems to have been a disaster, but "they are at peace." Certainly they were "tested" by God in this life, but God "found them worthy...." At some point, "they will shine forth...." These convictions about life after death come to "Those who trust" in God and "understand truth...." These "faithful" will find themselves at home with God "in love, because grace and mercy are upon God's holy ones...."


This excerpt from the writings assigned to Isaiah contemplates what comes after God's judgment is complete. God is the host of a great victory feast on the holy mountain, Zion/Jerusalem. It is the consummation of humankind's most enduring dreams. God will provide a "feast of rich food" and "well-aged wines strained clear." The dark cloud of death, which hangs over every person, will be lifted; God "will swallow-up death forever." Tenderly, God "will wipe away all tear from all faces..." and restore lost dignities. This is the God we are waiting for. Let everyone be glad.

Composed as a liturgical call and response for pilgrims approaching Jerusalem, this psalm begins with the declaration that the earth is filled with the Lord's presence, because the Lord established it. Who is worthy to go to this holy place/the pure in heart. Who is the king of glory/the Lord of strength and victory.

After God's final, great judgment and the passing of earth, the mystic John sees "a new heaven and a new earth" and a "new Jerusalem." He hears "A loud voice from the throne...." declare that God now is at home with "mortals." Echoing Isaiah (25:8), he also sees God wiping away tears. After this glorious time, "Death will be no more...." The "one who was seated on the throne declaims, "See, I am making all things new" The one speaking entrusts John to record this vision "for these words are trustworthy and true...." "It is done." The creator of earth is also the creator of this new world, the "Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end."

The calling of Lazarus back from death in John's gospel comes just before Jesus enters Jerusalem for his trial and his own death and is also presented as the final straw for the enemies of Jesus. In his sophisticated, heuristic style, John tells a story that elicits strong human emotions and, at the same, exposes a "sign" with many, many possible meanings for the reader/hearer to live with. Mary, a sister of Lazarus, finds Jesus and confronts him with the news of her brother's death as she upbraids him, "Lord, if you had been there, my brother would not have died." When Jesus sees her distress and her weeping with the friends who have accompanied her, he is deeply moved and weeps, too. But others on the scene wonder aloud why he could not "have kept this man from dying" in the first place. Jesus goes to the tomb and orders the stone to be rolled away. Martha, the other sister of Lazarus, objects; he has been dead for four days and the stench will be terrible. Jesus prepares them for something astounding: "Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?" They take away the stone and Jesus offers a perfunctory prayer "for the sake of the crowd standing here...." Then Jesus shouts, "Lazarus come out." Lazarus walks out of the tomb, still bound in the strips of cloth form head to toe with which he had been buried. Jesus commands some standing nearby, "Unbind him and let him go."

"God will swallow up death forever," the visionary Isaiah writes. "Death will be no more," the mystic who took the name of John echos a thousand years later. After death, "The souls of the righteous are in the hands of God," the write who honors Solomon imagines. Jesus stage directs the friends and family of Lazarus in a dramatic scene in which the dead man walks out of his own grave-- alive! (We can appreciate why this was such a popular story for retelling by the writers/composers of Medieval mystery plays.) That biblical writings are wild, fiery, imaginative, bold and uninhibited by human reservations is certainly clear in these readings and gospel for the Feast of All Saints in year B! When read aloud on Sunday in the liturgy, hearers are in the presence of holiness that challenges our blase, dulled imaginations and abandoned longings! These readings and gospel do nothing less than re imagine death in a wholly new way that does not make dying unavoidable, but transforms it into a cause for imaginative improvisation. They begin to fulfill the promise of Jesus, "Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?"

In his compact, provocative essay,
The Gift of Death, Jacques Derrida surveys some assumptions about death that have been dominant in the West, including biblical and religious, and reaches his own conclusions. He establishes first that "Death is very much that which nobody else can undergo or confront in my place." Living with this realization, he writes, jolts me into a corollary realization, "My first and last responsibility, my first and last desire is the responsibility of responsibility that relates me to what no one else can do in my place." (p.44) Living with the impending fact of my own death impels me to explore the unique responsibilities and opportunities that I have yet to undertake, which, although they will always exceed my accomplishment, I want to undertake. How does this happen? "...[T]he Good can no longer be a transcendental objective, a relation between objective things, but the relation to the other [person(s)], a response to the other, an experience of personal goodness, and a movement of intention." This intentionality toward how I will live my life is an expression of "infinite love." And only infinite love can "become finite, become incarnate in order to love the other, to love the other as finite other. The gift of infinite love comes from someone and is addressed to someone; responsibility demands irreplaceable singularity. Yet only death, or rather the apprehension of death, can give this irreplaceability...." (p.51)

A transformation gets underway. It brings us 'back to life' not in the sense of reversing death (Even Lazarus died) but in the more urgent sense of returning us to daily living with a richer, deeper humanity in the days of our lives. (Like Lazarus, this power calls us out of our own grave!) This is the 'open secret' of the community into which you were baptized (and to which you re-commit on the Feast of All Saints). It is the 'open secret' that alters the power of death which, at first, seemed so complete and overwhelming. This is the 'open secret' shared by those saints, known and unknown, who have gone before you and lived their lives and faced their dying in the hope of finally being at home in the hands of God.