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Bible Study Guide for Fifth Sunday in Lent, Year A

March 26, 2023

[Ezekiel 37:1-14,  Romans 8:6-11,  John 11:1-45,  Psalm 130]

As I sit down with these scriptures to prepare a writing guide for this penultimate Lenten Sunday (admittedly, a few weeks in advance—and I say this to prevent any confusion about where we are in the liturgical season given my ensuing remarks), my family and I are currently marking the one-year anniversary of my mother’s death. She was a remarkable woman—the kind of person whom I suspect was filled with the “righteousness” that Dr. Battle has spoken about in his forum lectures on Romans, whose way of life exuded the peace of the Spirit in what often felt like impossible ways. Liturgically, her death fell on the day after Ash Wednesday; though a friend of the family brought us ashes to impose on each other’s foreheads, we refused them, acutely aware in those days that we are indeed dust, and to dust we shall all return.

As I’ve spent time replaying in my mind those surreal final hours of my mother’s life, I find that I yet cannot approach this week’s texts—these famous foreshadowings of the Resurrection to come, texts which are also strangely full of corpses—apart from my own lingering grief. I think of my mother’s breath leaving her body, of scattering her ashes in the months that followed, of what it was like to lay with her and hold her hand after her breath had passed from her body—and it is Jn. 11:36-37 that most catches me from this week’s texts: “So the Jews said, ‘See how he loved him!’ But some of them said, ‘Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?’” With the Psalmist, too, I find myself in this Lenten season waiting for the Lord “de profundis” (“from the depths”), the Latin title for the Psalm based on the author’s inaugural lament: “Out of the depths have I called to you, Oh Lord…” (Ps. 130:1).

In the titular essay of a recently translated anthology of some of his apocalyptic writings, [i] the Orthodox theologian Sergius Bulgakov similarly prays to God “from the depths.” He therein describes in vivid detail a near-death-experience brought on by an illness his doctors thought incurable, and also recounts a mystical experience of Christ at the hour of his most acute suffering. After admitting that he raised the question, “why have you forsaken me, oh Lord?” from his deathbed, he writes that:“….there was another thought that up to that point I had not known and that constituted for me a genuine spiritual event, which will forever remain for me a revelation—not of death, but of dying, with God and in God. It was my dying—with Christ and in Christ … I knew Christ in my dying, his nearness was palpable for me, almost bodily … He was able to help me in my suffering and in my dying only by co-suffering and dying with me…” (Bulgakov, trans. De La Noval, p. 137). Bulgakov continues his essay to emphasize the inescapability of death even as he underscores Christ’s presence with us in that experience: Before we can taste the coming joy of Easter Sunday, before the breath of the Spirit can vivify the “Valley of Dry Bones” in Ezekiel’s stirring vision, and before we can experience our own resurrected life, we must all pass first through this same gate—we are all dust, and to dust we shall all return.

The Lazarus story reminds me that Christ was no stranger to this reality, both insofar as the miracle anticipates and is literally included on Jesus’s way toward the crucifixion in John’s Gospel, but also insofar as the narrative tells us how Jesus experienced grief at the passing of his own beloved friends and family. In today’s story, the onlookers wonder why Jesus did not save Lazarus because they can see how “he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved” by Mary’s and the others’ weeping (Jn. 11:35), which in turn leads Jesus to weep as well. Jesus, moreover, does not rebuke the onlookers’ ensuing question—“Could not he… have kept this man from dying?”—but rather, and quite importantly, the text instead tells us that Jesus then went to the tomb “again greatly disturbed” (Jn. 11:38). Even knowing what he knows, that he will resurrect Lazarus—and that, after Lazarus, all dry bones shall be given new life through the Spirit by way of his own Resurrection—Christ knew intimately the reality of grief over the death of a loved one. And this reality, as John tells us, disturbed him. As Bulgakov experienced Christ “co-suffering” and “co-dying” with him in his greatest hour of anguish, so also does Jesus’s deep mourning over Lazarus’s soon-to-be-vivified body remind me that part of Jesus’s “co-suffering” with us includes even this grief. God does not ask us to callously ignore or theologically explain away our anguish at the reality of death, but instead joins us in that anguish in every way—suffering with us, dying with us, grieving with and over our bodies even within the divine intention to resurrect them.

And in that wondrous, mysterious, and agapic act of God’s choice for solidarity with the decaying condition of all human flesh, inlcuding even our grief, we are afforded the hope spoken about by Paul: “To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace…” (Rom. 8:6); “But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you…” (Rom. 8:9a); “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you” (Rom. 8:11). As Paul will likewise discuss in great detail in 1 Corinthians 15, his assurance here of the Spirit’s inevitable victory over death regards the Easter hope for the bodily resurrection of all flesh. Just like in Ezekiel’s vision, wherein the prophet “looked, and there were sinews [on the bones], and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them” (Ez. 37:8) “…and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude” (Ez. 37:10), Paul here reminds us how we might hope that—precisely through Christ’s co-suffering, co-dying, and co-grieving with us—we shall all one day breathe a new sort of breath.

My mother was a remarkable woman, full of a grace that brought her life and peace in lieu of despair. As I gain consolation from the knowledge that Christ grieves her death in the flesh with me, these Scriptures nonetheless also assure me that I can look forward with hope toward our common Easter, wherein the breath of the Spirit shall revivify what has become dust in wonderful ways that I cannot possibly presently understand.

– Katie Wrisley Shelby


[i] See: https://www.amazon.com/Sophiology-Death-Eschatology-Political-Universal/....


In the Lazarus story, John tells us that Jesus does not immediately attend to Lazarus, but lets him die “for God’s glory.” How do you interpret this? How does this make you feel? (See also Jn. 11:42; Jn. 12:9-10.)

Reflect on Jesus’s grief in today’s Gospel. Are there are other moments in the Gospel that recount Jesus’s grief? Or perhaps another emotion? What does the inclusion of these “passions” in Jesus as narrated by Scripture tell you about God?

Why is it significant that Paul and Ezekiel discuss the Resurrection as bodily? (1 Corinthians 15 is also a fun text to examine for this idea!)


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