I grew up with David Bowie.
What I mean is, I grew up listening to the music of David Bowie coming from the bedrooms of my older siblings.
Like other popular songwriters, the lyrics of David Bowie permeate the English language. Perhaps the most recent being to ‘Major Tim’ by the media in reference to the British astronaut, Major Tim Peake. Many will know that this nickname refers to ‘Major Tom’ in the lyrics of David Bowie’s classic song, ‘Space Oddity’.
But perhaps David Bowie’s most haunting song was his last, ‘Lazarus’. The song is a moving reflection on death from a performance artist coming to terms with his own.
The name Lazarus is in itself a reference used by artists through the ages to refer to a man who died and was brought back to life by Jesus in the gospel of John 11: 1-44. The name ‘Lazarus’ is forever linked with one who has come back from the dead. It is a strange gospel story at first reading. What does it mean?
First, let me say I think there are often many levels to stories:
- Have you ever come back to a favourite story and seen something new in it?
- Not because the story has changed but because you have?
For years I have read this story at only one level. But more recently I have had an epiphany. I now read it at a further level.
We are Lazarus.
We are Lazarus when we hear the voice of the one who calls us from the tomb. This story is the story of our coming to life from death now, not just in a future event. We are to see ourselves in Lazarus, whose name, a shortened form of Eleazar, means “God helps.” He is from a town whose name, Bethany, means “House of Affliction.” So God helps one who suffers from affliction. John’s gospel often uses the physical realm as a metaphorical pointer to the spiritual realm.
I think this story reminds us we can experience death in many ways. We will die physically, but we can also die emotionally, psychologically, relationally, communally, or spiritually. I am often reminded of Miss Havisham in Charles Dickens’ “Great Expectations”, who sat in her ragged wedding dress – grave clothes if you like – amid the cobwebs and the darkness of her home. Miss Havisham was in a ‘tomb’.
The character of Miss Havisham warns us that we all have the potential to create tombs. As individuals we can create them in our homes. Collectively we can create them in other places. Death is more than a physical experience and we use the word to express more than the ending of physical life.
I volunteer for a local schools project called REInspired. A few days ago I was discussing with some primary school children the subject of ‘death’ as a part of the national Religious Education syllabus. We reflected on the story of ‘Waterbugs and Dragonflies’, by Doris Stickney, a story that describes a transformation consequently resulting in a new form of life. We thought for a while what the surface of the water represented in the story and the waves caused when the waterbug breaks through to become a dragonfly.
Grief is sometimes described as being like ‘waves’. And we all need time to grieve. But I am convinced that we are not created to stay in tombs forever – in this life or the next. For Christians that is the simple but powerful message of Easter.
One of the most significant Christian responses that can be shared in this world with other human beings is the response to death. Not in a superficial way but acknowledging all the emotions involved and yet providing a message of something more. This is powerfully conveyed by Sister Helen Prejean in her true story ‘Dead Man Walking’ written in 1993, which subsequently became a film of the same name in 1995 starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn. The film not only explores death, but issues of anger, hatred, forgiveness, and redemption. In other words, what does it mean to be human in the face of death?
However, there is another question. Not only what does it mean to be human when encountering death but what does it mean to be human beyond it? From mummification to cryogenics, human beings have sought to defy death through history. Cybernetics now poses the interesting question of whether human consciousness can be transformed into digital data and hence become ‘immortal’?
The ‘mind, body, spirit’ debate continues to remain elusive. An example of this is ‘The God Impulse. Is Religion Hardwired into the Brain?’ published in 2011 and written by professor of neurology, Kevin Nelson, which concludes that spiritual experiences lie somewhere between consciousness and REM sleep. However the book can neither affirm nor deny whether these spiritual experiences are ‘real’. Furthermore, some profound questions arise in other ways:
- Is there a human soul or are we simply a collection of electric impulses of the brain that may eventually be ‘downloaded’ on to a silicon chip?
- Is disembodied intelligence classifiable as human?
- Is immortality the pinnacle of human existence?
The Biblical tradition does not point us toward immortality, which is a Greek philosophical concept in origin. Instead it speaks of life transformed before God, even after death. Resurrection and immortality are not identical.
The gospel story of Lazarus may help us understand the concept of resurrection if we explore the imagery in the story a little further. When Jesus eventually arrives at the tomb in the gospel story he asks, “Where have you laid him?” The crowd reply, “Lord, come and see.” It is hard not to flashback to chapter one of John’s gospel when the would-be disciples were seeking Jesus, asking, “Lord, where are you staying?” And he responds, “Come and see.” Life with God is signified with invitations into the new and unknown.
At the entrance of the tomb Jesus cries out with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The Greek verb ‘kraugazein’ occurs six times in John’s gospel. It is used four times for the shouts of the crowd to crucify Jesus. The shouts of the crowd bring death to Jesus. But Jesus’ shout brings life to Lazarus – and to us.
A voice calls at the edge of our tombs. We are to substitute our name for that of Lazarus and live – freed from our grave clothes. For what does Jesus say at the end of this story?
“Unbind him and let him go.”
There are many forms of death. I know what it is like to be in the ‘grave’, and maybe you do too. But a voice spoke to me, through differing voices, and in time… I was unbound. For we are created not for death, but for life and to share that life with others, in this world and beyond.
Life unbound – come and see…