“The earliest star coined out of the dark coping to the south hanging in the dead wickerwork of the trees along the river.”
Not quite the sparse prose of Hemingway, nor the overflow of Faulkner, but clearly American, woven from the fabric of the West, a mouthful of the vernacular. These words come from “The Crossing,” the second book in the Border Trilogy by Cormac McCarthy, a great American novelist. The first book in the series, “All the Pretty Horses,” was filmed, as was “The Road,” a later and un-related bestseller, but film does not do justice to McCarthy’s writing, for while it captures the narrative action, which is powerful, it does not capture the salt and sweet of his words, the feel on the tongue, as he describes moments of breathtaking beauty and equally breathtaking violence. McCarthy is the literary reader’s Louis L’Amour, unapologetically dusty, guns and horses, the permeable border between the US and Mexico, the grace of bodies in motion and emotions embodied.
Despite the genius of his writing, McCarthy has not won the Nobel Prize for Literature, or as I like to call it, the Nobel Prize for Not American Literature. No American writer has won the prize in my lifetime, though a musician infamously won two years ago. In a 2009 statement, the Permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy, the organization that awards the prize, said quite openly that the US was “too isolated, too insular” to be considered a source of great literature. I am an internationalist not a neo-nationalist, but I find this offensive. McCarthy is just one of the deserving authors that have been overlooked purely because of the accident of their birth, because some overseas want to punish American writers for the jingoism of our politicians.
While the Nobel Prize in Literature is supposed to be international and deals with a lifetime’s body of work, the Man Booker Prize is narrowly focused on a single novel and, until recently, restricted to authors from the United Kingdom, Ireland, South Africa, and other Commonwealth nations, former British colonies. The Booker Prize is a big deal, with a list of finalists and, strangely, bookies taking bets on actual books, which just goes to show you that you can bet on anything, at least in Britain. The Man Booker was expanded to include any novel written in English two years ago. A second prize for international fiction was created a few years before that. These changes have been controversial, especially since the first two Man Bookers since eligibility was expanded were awarded to Americans.
This year’s Man Booker Prize went to George Saunders for his form-stretching work “Lincoln in the Bardo.” It tells the story of bones, spirits, and Abraham Lincoln, wracked with grief, in the cemetery mourning for Willie, his young son. It is Saunders first novel, though he has a lauded body of work in short story and even children’s literature. I’d be concerned that he has set the bar too high with this novel, that he might be a one-hit wonder, but given his previous years of genius, maybe not.
Lincoln, fictionalized in Saunders’ text, served in a time of great crisis, a nation tearing itself in two along regional lines. Like FDR, a later president who would lead in a dark time, the former Senator from Illinois had nothing in his resume that would suggest his potential.
In Saunders’ novel, Lincoln is doing what no human should do, what some of you have done, grieving for his own child. Bones and bodies and spirits and there, unaware of the multitude, the president and one body, one particular body. The Bardo is a place we have all been really, that place where we have not fully accepted reality, are not ready to move on, for the narrating spirits in the Bardo are not ready to move on.
Today’s reading from Ezekiel is all bones and spirit and bardo, one living soul driven to a place of death. The tale is so remote, that Exile in Babylon, the text so sparse, and our reading so inattentive and haphazard that we miss important details, miss exactly how grim the situation is. It is an idea, not a reality for us. Ezekiel, this priest-prophet is active not so long after Jeremiah, a key player in the final years of the southern kingdom of Judah.
Both Ezekiel and Jeremiah tell us that things were so bad in those years between the first defeat and deportation and the second defeat and deportation, when the city and even the great Temple would be completely destroyed, that some Hebrews reverted to the ancient practice of child sacrifice, so famously rejected in the myth of the binding of Isaac. Hebrew child sacrifice is referenced multiple times in both books as having occurred during those years. These bones that Ezekiel sees are not abstract, are not comical Halloween skeletons or even those found on the otherside in Disney’s new hit, Coco. These bones might was well be the corpses of those sacrificed children, for many generations sacrifice their children, just as we are doing today. They are the bones of the unburied in a smoldering ruins of Jerusalem. They are the bones of the dead exiles, strangers buried in a strange land, never to go home. They are the bones in every mass grave that has ever been uncovered.
Faced with no hope, no reconciliation to be had with Yahweh, the ancients would resort to binding their children on the bloody altar of Baal. The streets ran with blood.
This is not clinical and remote, the subject of bible study and theology. This is real. Think of the wreckage of much of Europe at the end of the Second World War, the millions displaced, the barely alive, the starving, forests and cities reduced to smoldering rubble. If you are unfamiliar with the desperation of that time, I recommend Roberto Rossellini’s 1948 cinematic masterpiece “Germany Year Zero.”
Today we need only look at the news from a destabilized Southwest Asia, to images of Mosul and Raqqa and we need not use our imaginations or even watch Rossellini’s film, for we have seen the child dead on the beach, the child covered in debris in the hospital waiting room. The land of Abraham is a smoldering heap, just as was Jerusalem all those centuries ago. This was their lives, those who sacrificed their children. The ones held hostage in Babylon, the elite like Ezekiel, were the lucky ones.
And here is Ezekiel with this third of his four great visions. It is not to be taken literally, for the Hebrews didn’t even believe in life after death, in body or in soul, at this point in their religious trajectory. This is not about redemption of what was, of bodies. The bodies are not bodies, they are identity, belonging, living story. Ezekiel’s vision is about redemption of what will be. It is about daring to believe that the story will continue despite the present circumstance.
Ezekiel is called to speak to the bones, to prophecy to the bones, and they come together with a rattling, the noise of bone to bone, sinew and flesh regrown, and yet, there is still no life.
We are in this moment when things look right, to all appearances these lost people have been restored, but it is not right, for there is no spirit in them. Let us tarry awhile in that moment.
The authors of Ezekiel, no doubt both the prophet and his later editors, have in mind that second version of the creation story where God crafts the human form from clay but it is lifeless until filled with divine breath, spirit, ruah.
And here we are. Things look normal. Ball games get played, parades are held, flags are waved, and the collection plate gets passed around. But is there life? What do we do if the spirit isn’t right, for without the right spirit, we are as dry as bones in a valley, as desolate as the family that has sacrificed a child, as empty as Jerusalem aflame.
They sacrificed their children. Do you get it? They were literally killing their future in that culture where children were everything, where we hear in story after story the power of having a child, a miracle baby like Isaac or Samuel, a heritage, not just to care for you when you are old, but generation after generation. The promise to Sarah and Abraham, descendants more numerous than the stars, mothers praying and promising, the struggle for blessing.
They were willing to engage in acts of communal self-destruction, inflicting violence on the fabric of their covenant, and it yielded them nothing. They destroyed themselves and it yielded them nothing, O cruel desperation.
Let us linger in this moment with this priest-prophet, this troublesome man. He has spoken what was in his heart, spoken the words of the divine. First Jeremiah, called so many names as he tried to warn, to wake them up, then Ezekiel, offering words of hope but also calling them to prepare for the future.
If it had been today’s church, the bones would have declared their desire to remain dry and rotting in the valley, but this is not today’s church, this is the hand of God on the prophet, pulling him to this desolate place, giving him the words he needs to say. And he speaks that Word, those words, and the structure comes back together, sinews on them, flesh on them, skin on them. It looks right, but it isn’t right.
Appearances can be deceiving. The job is only halfway done.
Let us tarry a moment in this time when things look right but aren’t right yet, for the spirit is not yet there. This is the time of waiting for the divine to act.
How much of our lives are spent in the bardo, spent not accepting what is, not moving on to what might be? Where in your life are you standing on the edge between that valley and life, stuck, refusing the highway made through the desert? Where in your life do things look right but they are not right, for what is holy, what is creative, what is humble and loving, is missing? Where in our life together is creativity, love, kindness, and humility missing?
This is Advent, this is the season of preparation, a season when we are to make ourselves ready as if incarnation were happening all over again for the very first time because, wait for it, incarnation is happening again as if for the very first time
Unless, of course, we love “dem bones,” unless we are happy with the empty shell, unless we choose death.
“God calls the worlds into being, creates humankind in the divine image, and sets before us the ways of life and death.” These are words from our UCC Statement of Faith. The ways of life and death, an alternative to aimlessness and sin. We say we are about more than dry bones.
But here we tarry.
Look at the bones. See the bones. It is uncomfortable. Listen to the noise as God acts dramatically to bring life where there was death, where the word of the prophet plays a role but in the end it is Spirit that gives life.
Shall we tarry here in the Bardo? Or is it time to move on to a better place?
McCarthy, like Ezekiel, a man of desolation and desperation, closes “The Crossing” with this:
“Standing in that inexplicable darkness. Where there was no sound anywhere save only the wind. After a while he sat in the road. He took off his hat and placed it on the tarmac before him and he bowed his head and held his face in his hands and wept. He sat there for a long time and after a while the east did gray and after a while the right and godmade sun did rise, for all and without distinction.”