You’ve maybe heard me say this before, but I loved fairy tales as a child. They contained for me a power, a kind of terrible fascination, that I have revisited as an adult. I am pretty sure that big bad wolves, wild hags, shoemaker elves, ugly ducklings, good fairies, taking animals, and savvy children abandoned in forests populated my childhood dreams. They provided for me very good company.
Now I am not talking about the “handsome prince rescuing the helpless damsel” kind of fairy tale, although those are always fun too. I am talking about the fairy tales that help us look at the terror and the hope in this life.
I remember a long list of little stories – sometimes called fairy-tales, folk-tales, or wonder-tales. Maybe you know some of these.
Jack and the Beanstalk
The Ugly Duckling
Little Red Riding Hood
The Three Little Pigs
Goldilocks and the Three Bears
The Princess and the Pea
The Emperor’s New Clothes
Three Billy Goats Gruff
The Little Match Girl
These little stories made their way into the mainstream modern European landscape via the European salons of the 1600s. And they were later written down and tamed by the likes of the brothers Grimm, Hans Christen Anderson, and the Englishman Joseph Jacobs.
Academics think that they were used by the women who hosted the European salons to share subversive messages of crafty, imaginative, strong women overcoming oppressive families and circumstances. That was the way fairy tales worked, you see. It’s kind of what they were for. There were these common elements, characters, themes, and motifs that had been passed down and they would be told and reworked to speak to the circumstances of the day. The oral tradition allowed for this and today’s ethnographers have now found that common elements or fragments of these little stories exist in markedly diverse cultures and continents across centuries, even millennia. It was when we started to write the tales down that they became more fixed and just a little cleaned up.
As I think back I am not even sure now who passed them on to me. I think it was my Gran Fisher, my mom’s mom – the woman who would play cards with me when my parents were absent, whose hugs I remember most clearly, and who would take me to church at St Margaret’s – the only church I knew named for a woman. And my uncle, he told them to me. My Uncle Hughie. A wanderer, a searcher, a sprite. A lost soul with a twinkle in his eye. I think it was these two mostly who gave me these stories. But I also remember my dad stomping after me and my cousins down our hall in a game that ended up with someone deposited in the coal cellar back at the start of the hall. He would bellow as he chased squealing children “Fe Fi Fo Fum! I smell the blood of an Englishman.” And my Aunt Grace melancholy at a party singing “There Once Was An Ugly Duckling.” Or more joyfully “Thumbelina dance, Thumbelina sing.”
The folks who told me these stories gave me something that I could rework and use to navigate my own circumstances as a child and then powerfully later in life. They spoke to me, you see, of the horrors that can be a part of this life. They helped me look at the suffering that I already knew life could bring. They gave me some company for the way. They were honest about a natural world that was often tough, sometimes cruel. And about the forces of jealousy, loss, greed, and despair that can, and do, generate all sorts of evil and suffering. But they also placed within me some ideas that I think helped keep me afloat. They affirmed and strengthened some knowings that I would be able to articulate and really claim later in life. These little stories wanted me to know that I too could use my wits when I needed. That I was good and the bad that happened was not about my lack of worth or value. You too can resist, they said. You too can trust your gut. You too can learn how to sort the good from the bad and you can look for friends and kindness in unexpected places. And they urged me to hold onto the idea, the knowledge, that good really would win out.
Bones are one of those motifs, one of the symbols, that are used in fairy tales. They crop up often. Evil ones seek to destroy them and wise ones seek to preserve them. You see, bones in these stories represent the stuff of life. They are the last part of life that remains when all else is gone. “They are by their structure hard to burn, nearly impossible to pulverize. In myth and story they represent the indestructible spirit. A spirit that can be injured, even maimed, but very nearly impossible to kill.”[i]
Fragments of our sacred text today, this story of Ezekiel in the valley of dry bones, crop up in tales from all over the world. Those lines, “suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. 8 I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them….. and then breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.” Those lines appear in stories that have been told the world over. They are used and repeated I think because they have such power. They represent something that we know and that we want deep in our own bones. They remind and help us to hold onto the knowledge that the things that make for life, real life, simply cannot be stomped out. New life will come even in the midst of great horror and loss.
What horror there must have been to generate a pile of bones. I think of the pictures of the killing fields in Cambodia and the concentration camps of World War 2. The terror that is represented in those mass graves. The inhumanity that have been let loose among ordinary people that would wipe out whole groups of neighbors. The utter disregard for their worth and dignity that was so powerful that it would leave behind such great piles of bones. But piles of bones did remain in these places, indicting us, reminding us, where humanity can go if we are not vigilant. The life that was contained in them cannot be wiped out completely and life, good and flourishing life, says the wise ones can come, must come from what these bones have to say to us - if we will only listen and discern how to respond.
New life in loss and despair is the story that Jesus tells in this meeting with Mary and Martha. These bones can live. But he brings some very important emphasis or shading to the age-old stories that we tell. His way you see is not magic. Notice when new life comes in this story and how. It’s when Jesus and Mary and the community connect as human being over suffering. You see Jesus waits and he resists the idea that suffering is preventable. Suffering will come. It’s part of being alive. The tellers and hearers of tales since the beginning of time knew this, and Jesus does too.
And did you notice that Jesus does not respond, new life does not emerge, as a result of Martha’s debate about what is theologically correct and what belief system she assents to. Such conversations are important….maybe. They may get us part way there. But no, the new life comes when Mary and Jesus connect in the reality, the bare bones, the fullness, the rawness, of human grief over what has happened. She shows him what she has lost. He is moved. And together they see new life.
The rising of Lazarus’s tired and weary bones represent something we know in ours. Something God gave us. Something Jesus came to show us. New life, possibility, the things we really need come when we give ourselves to another. When we sit and we listen and we see who our neighbor is, what they have lost, what they want most in this life, and what they will give themselves for. That’s where new and real life exists. That’s where possibility and hope and truth reside. The new and undeniable life that exists in that place as we journey as full human being together might manifest itself in some tangible way: a new purpose, new call, new ways of thinking, new friendship. Or it might not. It might just in a moment, in a fairy’s breath, remind both people that there is a love that cannot die. A love that will not let them go.
Jesus came to show us that love. He shows it to us by being with those who suffer during his life and then most powerfully by giving himself to a world that suffers, a world immersed in ways that ways perpetuate suffering. He offers himself to a system of power that snuffs out people who would try to reveal the way it oppresses. And as he does so he stands tall and publicly on behalf of a God that loves all people. He refuses, utterly refuses, to return evil for evil. And in doing so he lets anyone who cares to look see in all its glory the evil that some types of suffering can do. The ways fear and fury would choose to persecute a good and loving man because he threatens a scarce, unsubstantial, unequal, rotten sense of power. This revelation, this type of love, a love that stand up to and stands with suffering, cannot be stomped out. It is impossible and it’s power is in us.
So be aware my fellow travelers. The forest can feel very dark. There are trolls and giants who want to take what doesn’t belong to them. They exist inside us and around us. But don’t hide from the adventure ahead. God has provided a way through, a way to life everlasting. Its not magic. It reveals itself to us as we share our suffering and as we dare to enter the suffering of others. It comes as we weep together, as we laugh together, as we stand together, sing together, journey on together. It comes as we stand strongly and lovingly in the face of the suffering systems of this world. Systems that try to retain power because the fear there may not be enough for everyone. So grab some bread for the journey, there is enough for all, and look for the way. Its not magic. It’s just ordinary, brave, real, bold, life-everlasting love.
[i] Dr Clarissa Pinkola Estes: Women who run with Wolves. Kindle edition. Location 784