April 10, 2011
The Fifth Sunday in Lent
Passion Sunday“George” had been sleepwalking her way through life. An aimless college student who drove her family nuts with her cynicism and lack of motivation, she dropped out of school and reluctantly landed a job at a temp agency, and that only because of her mother’s ceaseless prodding.
Her life changed on a lunch break where, standing on the street, she’s instantly killed by a falling piece of the burned-up MIR Space Station ... the toilet seat. End of story? Hardly.
Immediately following her fatal encounter with interstellar Soviet-era bathroom hardware, George finds herself standing again on the street amid the gathering crowd. She doesn’t realize that she’s dead until a kindly man named Rube points out her remains and tells her that she’s now a member of the Rube-led Pacific Northwest chapter of grim reapers — people who, like George, died with unresolved issues and now must learn lessons that, for one reason or another, they failed to learn in life.
This quirky and darkly comic look at one possible version of life after death is the premise of Showtime’s series Dead Like Me, starring Ellen Muth as George and Mandy Patinkin as Rube. Weaving its storylines through the interaction of the characters and their “victims,” the show asks some compelling questions about life and death: “What if death is not the end? What if it’s not even an escape from the issues that plagued us? What if it’s not a way to avoid accountability, but an opportunity to accept responsibility? What if it’s a wake-up call?”
A literary version of this theme is taken up by Mitch Albom, who published the novel The Five People You Meet in Heaven on the heels of his wildly successful Tuesdays With Morrie. If you have not read either, I highly recommend this very motivational author. In Five People, Eddie works at an amusement park in Jersey, but is killed by a malfunction of Freddy’s Free Fall. In heaven, Eddie meets five people who help him understand why what happened on earth — happened.
George. Eddie. Now Lazarus. Think of the story of Lazarus as kind of a Dead Like Me prequel without the attendant grim reaper storyline.
When the story opens we learn that Lazarus, a friend to both Jesus and the disciples, had “fallen asleep,” his illness leading to death. Sleep was the common term used when speaking of death in Jewish texts and in Greek mythology where Sleep and Death were portrayed as twin brothers. Jesus tells his disciples that he will go to Bethany to “awaken Lazarus” but, being way too literal, the disciples think that sleeping is a good thing and that “if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right”.
“Lazarus is dead,” Jesus has to tell them plainly. “For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him”. Jesus is going to not only wake up his death-sleeping friend, but also wake up his own disciples to the reality of resurrection power. The rest of the story is like a script right out of a Hollywood horror flick. Lazarus has been decomposing for four days; the odor of death is pervasive; bodily fluids have run everywhere – you get the idea.
Jesus arrives, weeps with and for the mourners, and then gets to work. Ordering the stone rolled away from the entrance of the tomb, he prays and then calls into the darkness, “Lazarus, come out!” Out lurches this former corpse, wrapped in smelly linen.
But what’s the rest of the story? Imagine you’re Lazarus, just awakened, standing outside your own tomb looking at a stunned crowd of people who don’t know whether to laugh, cry, or run for the hills. What was it like for him to wake up to “life after death?”
In television’s Dead Like Me, George gets another chance to do it right while still dead. In Five People, Eddie learns what life was all about while dead and in heaven. But in the gospel of John, Lazarus has a Real Death Experience, not a Near Death Experience, and lives to tell about it. He dies once, but is born twice — from both the womb and the tomb.
We can almost imagine what it would be like to have something like that happen in our time. Percival Everett’s novel, American Desert, is about a man named Ted Street, a UCLA professor whose life is a mess and who decides to take his own life by walking into the ocean. On the way, however, his life is cut even shorter than he intended when a traffic accident decapitates him. His head is reattached with thread by a mortician so that the body will look presentable.
Problem is, during the funeral, Ted wakes up and sits up in his coffin, sparking an instant riot among the funeral attendees and they all run out into the street. Ted is dead — no pulse, no body heat, but he is now conscious and aware.
Not knowing what to do with his reanimated life, Ted goes home to his horrified and confused family. Soon, TV crews are parked on Ted’s front lawn, he’s an object of morbid curiosity by the government and by the scientific and medical communities, and feared as a minion of Satan by an obscure religious cult such as the like of Fred Phelps (of course he thinks everyone is ill, sick or evil anyway).
But the heart of the book is Ted’s new-found lease on life — after death. He reconnects with his estranged family and finds new value in getting a second chance at life, or at least something like it.
Is it surprising in an American culture as hedonistic and pleasure-seeking as it is, that there is some evidence that we’re not quite able to pull it off? We’re not quite able to escape our Puritan and piety background. There is still the residue of moral and ultimate accountability that rings true; maybe not much these days, but still some. We live for ourselves, but now we’re asking ourselves if perhaps there isn’t a second chance on the other side.
John 12 tells us that Lazarus, too, became an instant celebrity with the crowd and an instant outcast to the religious establishment. As Dan Rather would say, he’s hotter than a Times Square Rolex. The grateful dead man walking was an animated testament to the power of Jesus — living, breathing evidence of the possibility of resurrection that the people of Israel were looking for to occur – but they were looking for it to occur “at the last day.”
The chief priests plotted to kill Lazarus and put him back in the tomb for good. But that’s where we lose track of this dead man walking in the Scriptures. The truth is that we don’t know exactly what Lazarus was like before and after he emerged from his tomb. Christian tradition goes a couple of different directions when it comes to the rest of the story. One tradition says that Lazarus, learning of the plot against him, fled to France where he became bishop of Marseilles and was later martyred. Another says that he and his sisters fled to the island of Cyprus, where he was later ordained by Paul and Barnabas and served for years as bishop and an example of the Christian life and hope of resurrection to the people there. He died (again) at age 60 and was buried in a sarcophagus with the inscription “The four-day Lazarus — friend of Christ.” His remains were removed to Constantinople in the year 890 by the Byzantine emperor who, in return, built a church in Cyprus that survives to this day.
Whatever happened, we imagine that Lazarus spent the rest of his second life devoted to telling others about the Christ who had given him life — not just raising him physically from the dead, but giving him a new life of purpose as well. He awoke to a new reality in Christ.
Here’s the deal: Characters like George Lass, Ted Street and Lazarus pose a spiritually significant challenge to all of us. It forces us to view life through the lens of death; to look backward at life from its end point rather than always forward; to recognize that while death comes to us all at some point, we should prepare for that death not by fearing it but by facing it.
To put it another way, we don’t have to sleepwalk through life and wait for death in order to wake up and smell the malodorous life we’ve left behind. We can have a second chance, an opportunity to die more than once, to die to self, as Paul put it, and to put behind us an old life and awaken to a new one filled with new adventures, renewed relationships and ultimate purpose.
Lazarus’ physical death and resurrection put him on a different path toward living out his purpose as a follower of Christ. Our spiritual death, dying to ourselves and our sleepy, sinful way of life can do the same.
Think of it as joining the ranks of the “living dead” without the lurching, drooling, and moaning. No whacking over the head with a toilet seat required. Instead of being Dead Like Me, we are Alive in Christ.
God Love You +
+ The most Rev. Robert Winzens
Pastor – St. Francis Universal Catholic Church
San Diego, Ca.