Fifth Sunday in Lent, Year A
The Collect: Almighty God, who weepest with us in the depths of our extremity: console us, we pray, but also breathe life into our dry bones, that we, encircled in the robe of thy righteousness, may put our trust in thee and live in the Holy Spirit, through the mercy of thy gracious Son. Amen.
If the Third Sunday of Lent marks, as Ronan wrote, the point where our observance flags, today’s readings allow for the hyperbolic suggestion that by now we’re just a pile of dry bones, crying to God from the depths of misery. Looking upon such histrionics, even a good friend might suggest that we just go and eat some chocolate already, if only to relieve others from the burden of witnessing our embarrassing display.
Should we be indulging in antics of this sort, we’re missing the point, not only of the scriptures, but of the season itself. Lent is not about death, but life; not about famishing, but flourishing. When Jesus hungered in the wilderness, the tempter invited him to make bread of stones—yet we are not to live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. In our hunger, therefore, we may yet live. Indeed, the hunger ought to remind us wherein we truly subsist.
The dry bones in Ezekiel’s vision, that is, are mistaken in their perception that “our hope is lost; we are cut off completely” (NRSV). God will open their graves, put his spirit in them, and place them back in their land. Just so might he breathe new life into us when we droop under our burdens, Lenten or otherwise.
In the epistle, Paul writes that “to set the mind on the flesh is death” (NRSV). This can be hard to avoid when the pangs of whatever abstinence we have set upon ourselves call our minds to our flesh. What does the promise mean, though, that if we are in the Spirit we will live in Christ? Is the proffered life nothing more than a metaphor used to paper over real suffering?
Rather, as Kristine has so beautifully suggested, the reverse may be true: life often comes to us still bound in graveclothes, it falling to us to finish the miracle. Thus, although we with the psalmist often justifiably cry out to God from the depths, there is forgiveness if we wait on him, and our plaint that began in despair can end with “hope in the LORD,”
For with the LORD there is steadfast love,
and with him is great power to redeem.
It is he who will redeem Israel
from all its iniquities. (NRSV)
Nephi’s great psalm powerfully exemplifies this movement from despair to hope, showing us how to live in the spirit while still in the flesh. He begins by declaring his wretchedness and that his “heart sorroweth because of [his] flesh.” His groaning, however, coincides with his knowledge of in whom he has trusted. The psalm does not culminate with the flesh’s total subsumption into the life of the spirit; rather, it ends with Nephi having found a more faithful way to manage the wrenching division within himself. He still feels the pangs of the flesh and death, but he pleads with renewed trust in the rock of his righteousness for life and the spirit.
If the Lenten season has now begun to feel long, leaving us weary in our determination, let us not therefore forget that Easter soon will be here, that in Jesus’ rising we, too, will be revived.
Psalm 130, known as “De profundis” from its Latin incipit, has inspired many musical settings. I have chosen just two. The first, in two parts, is from the 17th-century French composer Marc-Antoine Charpentier:
The second is from the 20th-century Estonian composer Arvo Pärt: