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Covid 19: Lazarus or Jesus?

Sally Nelson highlights the unique, theologically profound contribution the church offers at this time


Breaking completely new ground is always a challenge: in these days of the pandemic we break it daily. Where did any of us learn to deal with social lockdown, virulent infection, and imminent economic collapse – all in the space of a few weeks? We live in a new space-time: one in which space has contracted and time has lengthened, and we do not know when it will return to something more familiar.

How should the church ‘be’ in this new space-time? The outpouring of digital activity is perhaps characteristic of our Baptist activism; but I believe there is something theologically profound that we continue to offer, which requires no extra effort. It is our hope in Christ, which allows us to walk with peace in this unknown space-time territory, a liminal space between life and not-life.

In the 20th century, anthropologists Arnold van Gennep[i] and Victor Turner[ii] each explored human rituals through studies of traditional societies across the world. What was discovered was that all societies use ritual to navigate major life transitions: birth, adolescence, marriage and bereavement. These transitions are journeys into the unknown, and persons are permanently changed by them. No-one can reverse giving birth or growing into an adult.

An example of a ritual might be when boys at  adolescence  (‘pre-liminal’) are removed from mainstream society, undergo a series of challenges in the wilderness away from the community (the ‘liminal’ or in-between stage), then return to take their place as adults (‘post-liminal’). Their time of testing is overseen by a liminal guide, or an elder, who has been through the process, reflected on it, and so has the wisdom to mentor others. The ritual is embraced by the whole society: they leave as boys and return as men. The liminal space in the wilderness – in which they are neither boys nor men – is a frightening space because it is a journey into the unknown. 

Our own society is recognisably thin on such rituals for multiple reasons: the loss of a shared religious culture, the drive of individualism, and the embrace of continual novelty; all leading to the devaluation of mystery, wisdom and acquired experience. The Franciscan Richard Rohr has written extensively about the impact of this loss on western spirituality and society.[iii] Instead of widely practised and well-understood rituals that confirm social structure, we pursue displacement activities of excitement and new experiences, and we constantly seek affirmation of certainty (eg will I survive if I get coronavirus?). The experience of dying, a liminal space between life and death, is one with which we are culturally ill-equipped to deal. We even say that someone has ‘passed’ and not ‘died’, since we do not like to speak of this realm of our uncontrol.      
The pandemic has unceremoniously dumped us collectively into a liminal space. We do not have the certainties of our previous lives; we do not know what it will be like when we emerge from the pandemic; each day brings a new and life-threatening challenge. If I go to the shops, will I catch the virus? If I ring my father, will he be sick? Will I, today, lose someone I love? What our society misses is the liminal guide, the elder who has been this way before. Here, I believe, is the place for the unique contribution of the church.

After Jesus was crucified, he was truly dead, laid in a tomb. Alan Lewis, in his book Between Cross and Resurrection,[iv] encourages us not to skip too quickly over Holy Saturday, the liminal space between Good Friday and Easter Day. This liminality is one we can feel even in the 21st century as we try each year to do ‘ordinary’ things on Holy Saturday, burdened by a profound and unsettling sense of waiting for the triumph of Sunday’s resurrection. Lewis reminds us that we modern disciples have the benefit of hindsight in reading the gospels: we know what happens; we know that Jesus will rise. The original disciples did not and had to endure that not-knowing, which during the three days of the tomb had no foreseeable ending.

As we re-enact the experiences of that first crucifixion and resurrection week, we practise our ability to live in this space between life, not-life and new life. James Alison[v] explains that Jesus did not simply return after Easter Day to his pre-crucifixion existence: this was not the ‘rewind’ button. Jesus raised is the dead and alive Lord; the slaughtered One who has risen and retains his experience of death within his new life. The resurrection takes us somewhere new, not back to the old life. The liminal space between life and death is resolved: we arrive in Jesus at a new and everlasting way of being. 

On Passion Sunday some of us will have explored the raising of Lazarus. Jesus called Lazarus from the tomb, and Lazarus came: but his escape from the tomb was not his escape from mortality, and he is not alive today to tell us what happened. Lazarus came out hobbled by his graveclothes, tied at hands and feet, indicative of his limited and mortal humanity. Jesus, by contrast, left his graveclothes on Easter morning neatly rolled up in the tomb (an interesting detail recorded in John’s gospel) since he would never need to be prepared again for his burial.

How can the church be our society’s liminal guide into death? Death is a mystery and when we accompany the dying we are awed into wordless silence and aware of the dying one moving beyond our grasp. We cannot travel with them as their liminal guides – or can we? For complex reasons, our society has given that responsibility to medical professionals. Since the Enlightenment in the West, a loss of confidence in God and the increasing ability of technology and medicine to explain the world and to extend and preserve life have raised our expectations such that death has – until Covid 19 – become societally perceived as a disease rather than a mystery.[vi] With all thankfulness for, and every blessing on, our healthcare teams, Covid 19 shows us that these expectations of their abilities to save and heal are not always fair: there is no certainty of outcome, and never has been. Death is real and our mortality cannot be cheated. Medicine can only be the Lazarus to the church’s Christ,[vii] and hope is our unique gift. Let us be confident that this hope and trust is enough, it is an indispensable offering to our nation in extremis, not just a private interest of Christians.   

Jesus has made this journey before us and is the sole personal guide who has experienced this particular liminal space. But those of us who follow him do not simply observe and note that ‘he has done it for us’. The church is the Body of Christ: and that Body has died and been raised, as we both remember and experience this again with every Lord’s Supper we share. Our unique contribution to the pandemic is probably not frenzied digital activity, but the unshakeable confidence that death is traversable in Christ.

WW1 was followed in 1918 by the Spanish influenza pandemic, which caused more fatalities globally than the war itself. I heard of a Baptist minister in 1918 who made the decision to sleep at the graveyard chapel so that he was more fully available for the avalanche of burials. It is impossible to do library research at present to explore his story further, but I like to think that this minister had embraced the difference between Lazarus and Jesus.

The Revd Dr Sally Nelson, Dean of Baptist Formation at St Hild College, Yorkshire (partnered with Northern Baptist College)

[i] Arnold van Gennep, The Rites of Passage (Engl transl from the 1908 text). London: Routledge & Paul, 1960.
[ii] Victor Turner, The Ritual Process. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1969.
[iii] eg Richard Rohr, Adam’s Return. NY: Crossroad, 2004; Everything Belongs. NY: Crossroad, 2003.  
[iv] Alan Lewis, Between Cross and Resurrection: A Theology of Holy Saturday. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001.
[v] James Alison, Knowing Jesus. London: SPCK, 1998, chapter 1.
[vi] Beverley McNamara explores this point in Fragile Lives, Buckingham: OUP, 2001, p15.
[vii] Sally Nelson, “Medical Rites: ‘Priestly’ Power in Modern Healthcare” in Scottish Journal of Healthcare Chaplaincy, 2009, 12(1), pp 18-23.


Image | Adam Howie | Creationswap

This is the latest in a series of theological and biblical reflections from Baptists for Holy Week and Easter

Do you have a view? Share your thoughts here

Baptist Times, 13/04/2020
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