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The form of living dust

Fifth Sunday in Lent, 13th March, 2005
Rev'd Canon Dr Jane Shaw, Dean of Divinity,
New College, Oxford

Texts: Ezekiel 37: 12-14; Psalm 130; Romans 8: 8-11; John 11: 1-45.

In Philip Pullman's powerful novel, "Northern Lights", dust drives the narrative and governs everything. Dust, in this novel, consists of particles from another world which cause original sin. The overriding intellectual quest as well as the central battles in the book are about discovering the origin and meaning of that dust. The misguided characters mistakenly try to overcome the power of dust in order to eliminate the existence of original sin, but the means to that end are always cruel, and their attempts to overcome death ironically lead to death.

Pullman's books are written for older children or young adults, but many grown-ups read them, including Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, who has had a number of public conversations with the author – in the National Theatre in London, and in the broadsheet newspapers. Pullman would describe himself as an atheist, and the church comes off very badly in the book, but Christian themes abound in his work and "Northern Lights" is clearly a working out of the verse in Genesis 3, the words of God to Adam and Eve just after the Fall: "From dust you have come, and to dust you shall return."

This was the phrase with which we began Lent. It reminds us of our mortality. It reminds us of our origins. And it reminds us that we are all, in the end, made of the same stuff as one another. 'Dust is, after all, that most democratic of substances'.

This would be our perpetual understanding of what it means to be human if we read only Pullman's novel or remained forever in the season of Lent. But the Christian story does not end there; dust in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures is not death-dealing but life-giving. God made Adam into living dust. This means that the material universe has value. And in Jesus Christ, God took on the form of living dust.

Ezekiel 37, from which we had a short reading this morning, turns the fears engendered by Genesis 3 inside out. The story which informs this morning's reading is that wonderful scene of Ezekiel following God's commands to bring back to life the dry bones littered around the desert: "and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling and the bones came together, bone to its bone." What the Ezekiel story says is this: back to dust you shall go and by the mighty power of an all-loving God from dust you shall be given new life. We may all be formed from dust and return to dust but the Christian story offers hope: Resurrection hope. Many commentators on this passage from Ezekiel have seen in it a foreknowledge or foreshadowing of the Resurrection of Christ. Gregory of Nyssa, the great 4th-century theologian, wrote in his treatise, "On the Soul and the Resurrection":

One might ... select many passages of Holy Scripture to establish the doctrine of the Resurrection. For instance, Ezekiel leaps in the spirit of prophesy over all the intervening time, within its vast duration; he stands, by his power of foresight, in the actual moment of the Resurrection, and, as if he had really gazed on what is still to come, brings it in his description before our eyes.

Here on Lent V, with two weeks to Easter, the compilers of the lectionary allow us also to catch a glimpse of the resurrection ahead of time, a bit like Ezekiel.

And so we come to the story of the raising of Lazarus and we are once again reminded that Jesus, in life as in death, turned death into life. His ministry was about touching the untouchables and giving them life – the lepers, the tax collectors, the woman caught in adultery. Most shocking of all, he touched dead bodies and made them live again.

The story of the dry bones coming to life in Ezekiel, the bringing back to life of Lazarus, the resurrection of Christ, point to the most distinctive thing that Christianity brings to our world today: the belief that God is a God of life and flourishing, not of death and decay. God always wants us to come to fullness of life, to be wholly who we are called to be.

In the entrance to New College chapel, in Oxford, where I am Dean of Divinity, there is a sculpture of Lazarus by the great twentieth-century sculptor Jacob Epstein. It's about 12 feet tall and is set right underneath the West window. When I stand at the high altar, Lazarus looks back at me right down the length of the chapel. He and I have now had quite a time to contemplate each other. And what strikes me about this Lazarus is that Epstein has portrayed him as he is just emerging from the grave, and he looks a little hesitant. He is just turning his head around, almost as if he is blinking into the light, reluctant to leave the warm comfort of the tomb.

The brilliance of Epstein's statue is that being given new life in Christ is like this. It is not necessarily easy. It is often much simpler to stay in the comfort of a life half-lived; the uncomfortable job, the easy prejudices of our childhood, the routine which sees our gifts unused, the resentments carefully nursed; the relationships and friendships that limit us. We are just like Epstein's Lazarus, tentatively stepping into a brave new world, unsure as to how our illusions are about to be shattered. For new life in Christ entails becoming the people whom God calls us to be, becoming fully our selves, breaking out of the bandages which cripple and stifle us. New life in Christ entails this not selfishly but in such a way that we expect and encourage that new life in our fellow travellers too, remembering that every human being is made in the image and likeness of God. We have to let go of the comfort of our dearly held but mistaken beliefs to see the hand of God in our lives and in the lives of all of those around us. New life bursts out when the former racist rejoices to see white and black swimming in a pool together; new life is promised when we overcome our jealousies and resentments to speak to family members whom we have ignored for years; new life is ventured when we take those first tentative steps towards finding a job which really uses all of our God-given gifts; new life emerges when the misogynist sees that women have equal capacities and gifts as men; new life flourishes when we welcome the refugee and the homeless person with respect.

New life is what the Christian path is all about. New life is given to us over and over again as we turn to Christ. It is never refused us. We simply have to grasp it with both hands. May we, with Lazarus, emerge into new life this Eastertide, accompanied by the God who loves each one of us more than we can possibly imagine.



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