What would it be like for the contemplative, unhurried, childlike, open mind to simply observe the process of a natural death?  Strange question, but a helpful one for us to understand tonight’s readings. 

Observing Natural Death

Talking ceases, eyes shut, arm and leg activity ceases until the person lies fairly still.  In this stillness what is perhaps most notable is the breathing.  In and out.  In and out.  Eventually the breathing stops.  Shortly thereafter the heart stops beating; the whole point of the heart is to move the oxygen around.  The “moment of death” begins with the last breath.


Now what happens next is different depending on the human culture.  In the US we typically do everything possible to avoid observing the next process.  We store the body at very cold temperatures; and then we embalm the body so that it is presentable as a body more or less frozen in time for viewing.  But were we to allow nature to take its course, the body would quite naturally decompose.  It would rot and eventually, over time, turn into a pile of organic matter—i.e., dirt.  This is the important point I wanted to get to.  When a person stops breathing, contemplatives have noticed I imagine for as long as humans have lived, the body decomposes. 

What Is This Breathing, And Where Did It Come From?

Where did this breath come from to begin with?  It is elemental for anyone who meditates and pays attention to their breathing that the breathing mechanism is not something we give ourselves.  It is an involuntary mechanism which begins immediately after birth and which ends at death.  Its operation is coterminous with our conscious lives before death.  So it is a kind of appropriate icon of our lives as coming from beyond us.  We do not bring ourselves into being.  So it is the Unsearchable Mystery, or whatever we may call it/her/him, that in some way fashions the dirt of this universe into a living, breathing human being.  The “dirt of this universe” is nothing less than the conglomeration of elements from exploding stars and the decomposition of all the life that preceded us, which lies on the surface of our Earth. 

The Divine Composer

So it is not so odd that the contemplatives who wrote creation narratives like we have in Genesis 1 and 2 would have made these observations and reflections.  And it is not so hard to imagine that this simple observation of nature became the seed for their creative expression of creation: (reversing the process) God takes dirt and gives it breath.

This can either be interpreted as a childlike rendition of “how it happened” in some literal way or it can be read as a creative celebration of how our lives are a gift from outside of ourselves.  And furthermore our lives are dependent not just for living but for thriving on this Other who continually gifts us with the ability to rise above the level of dirt. 

The Valley of the Dry Bones

The first reading tonight from Ezekiel offers an image of dry bones in a valley.  God, in Ezekiel’s prophetic vision, takes the elements of the earth and adds to the first muscle then skin to the bones.  But not until the breath is added do the compositions turn into human persons.  By the way if a body decomposes at death; it is composed at birth.  The elements are brought together for a creation by a Composer who is a mystery into which we could spend eternity delving.  By the way again, we might pause and notice that this image was meant not for one person but for the people of Israel.  We might ask, “What ‘gives breath’ to a community?”  If breathing keeps a body from decomposing, what keeps a community from decomposing?  [I’ll leave that there for tonight.]

The “Flesh” and the “Spirit”

The second reading from Paul talks about the difference between “flesh” and “spirit.”  Here we go again.  The word for spirit in Greek and Hebrew is the same word for breath.  It is the life principle which is given freely.  Paul is not encouraging us to despise our bodies compared to our “spiritual selves,” as countless Christians have distorted over time.  Paul is encouraging us to see that the level of dirt is not the same as the level of breath-holding-the-dirt-together-in-the-miracle-of-life.  And he uses this as a metaphor for rising above whatever is not our best self.  That is, he calls us to live at the level of the One who is gifting us with our lives to begin with. 

Called Away From Death

The gospel reading from John pictures Jesus calling forth Lazarus (and us) from a life that has “gone asleep” (losing consciousness of God) and is starting to have the stench of death.  Jesus calls, “Come out!”  Come out of that lower form of living that is really not living at all.  Living in the conscious awareness of God’s presence is life that is worth living.  This communion with God, this sharing of a Spirit (breath) that we cannot give ourselves, is what holds our “better selves” together. 

A Weekly Occurrence

When we gather for the Eucharist each week, we believe that Christ is present and calling us to “come out!”  Then as the gospel painting details, Jesus says to our brothers and sisters, “Unbind him/her.”  The community plays a role in helping each other move beyond the sleepy, stinky world of trying to live our lives apart from the Generous Source.

Sts. Clare & Francis
Fifth Sunday of Lent
Saturday, April 6, 2014
Ezekiel 37:1-14 (focused on)
Romans 8:6-11 (focused on)
John 11:1-45 (focused on)
Homily by Frank Krebs

Photo by Dennis Larson on