The Easter Prophets

We can't breathe sign at protest beside pandas at Hong Kong zoo.

This year Easter comes to us with the full prophetic voice--the warnings and the promise.

Christians often turn to the Hebrew prophets for our holy days, which has given us a rather lopsided view of their message. We relish, "Comfort, comfort my people" and all the promises of streams in the desert, mourning into dancing, a return from exile, a savior to come, and life springing from a valley of dry bones. We're far less likely to pay attention when those same prophets throw down dire warnings about the root causes of the initial discomfort, why we ended up in exile, or how a lovely valley ever became a mass grave of dry bones in the first place.

This year Easter comes to us with the fullness of the prophetic voice, as God's message speaks first through wailing sirens on behalf of those who cannot breathe and then follows on with the still small voice of Creation proclaiming resurrection and return. If we are to enjoy the latter, we must open our eyes and ears to the former.

It was the prophet Eric Garner who on July 17, 2014 cried out for an entire community, "I can't breathe!" as he died in a police chokehold on the streets of Staten Island, NY. He was accused of selling single cigarettes from a pack without tax stamps, an accusation he denied--while he still had breath. The cause of death was listed as suffocation.

For those with ears to hear, his cry of "I can't breathe!" warned that racism was choking entire communities of color. His cry foretold this day, when those forced to breathe the mold in substandard housing in communities where air pollution makes breathing a hazard and where healthy food is unavailable and healthcare is both unaffordable and unequally distributed would succumb to a pandemic of the breath in numbers far greater than their white peers.

The Hebrew word for breath is the same as the word for spirit, and it seems to me no accident that we now face a pandemic that attacks our lungs. Our communal spiritual disease--our lack of concern for and in some cases our direct attacks upon the poor and vulnerable has taken on physical form. As we have denied breath to some, so it is now denied to all of us. We were warned, but we choked off the voice of our prophets.

We have been driven into exile, and in our isolation have time to reflect on what led us here. Every social ill in the country is now laid bare for the world to see, even as the first mass graves are being filled in New York's Hart Island. Who will be the Ezekiel with enough breath remaining to call out, "Come from the four winds, O Breath, and breathe upon these slain that they may live?"

The human spirit, the human breath has taken a hit. But God does not speak through our voices alone. On Palm Sunday Jesus was asked to instruct his followers to stop their cries of "Hosanna!" Jesus answered that if those voices fell silent, the rocks themselves would cry out. And so it is with the promise of resurrection this Easter. As it has been from the beginning, all creation--even while groaning for its redemption--is showing forth the promise.

Cities from Delhi to Bogota to Los Angeles can suddenly see the beauty around them as the smog has cleared. In Mexico, jaguars now roam where tourists once crowded them out. In cities across the world, the animals have come out of hiding and explore the streets. On a beach in Brazil, usually crowded with people, over 100 endangered baby hawksbill sea turtles have hatched and made their way to the water. In the Ocean Park Zoo in Hong Kong, a pair of endangered pandas mated for the first time in their ten years together.

These too are our prophets, pointing the way to healing the lungs of the world. They are reminding us that Sabbath heals. They are reminding us that Jesus didn't jump off the cross in a flash of glory, but rather in the quiet of a sealed tomb, as the disciples set themselves apart to observe a mournful and terrifying Sabbath, the stone was rolled away and Jesus walked out with so little fanfare that Mary mistook him for the gardener. Bit by bit, the smog cleared from the eyes of his followers. One by one they came out of hiding and began to understand that life wasn't over--it had only just begun.

Not all of them learned. Judas didn't wait, lost all hope, and took his own life. But for those who didn't give in to despair; for Peter who grieved his own cowardice and Thomas who was honest about his own doubts; for those who were willing to listen to what the women had told them and act on that information, the terror ended. Death no longer had the victory; the grave no longer came with a sting. They and the world were forever changed.

In the absence of our joined Alleluia's this year, the sky and stones and creatures of the earth prophesy, "Resurrection!" Creation bears witness to the promise now, just as it did when the very first winter turned into spring. If we can learn to blend work and Sabbath--if we can restructure our lives so that all peoples and all living things literally have breathing room, then the dry bones of our oppressed communities and beleaguered earth can rise to new life, our mourning shall turn to dancing, and our exile will end. But the breath must come from the four winds--it must be shared by all, not hoarded for just a few. We rise from the valley together or we remain a valley of dry bones.

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