The fifth Sunday of Lent in Year A: the raising of Lazarus, and other stories.
When I was about six years old, my Grandpa died. I must have been playing outside, because I remember coming into the house to find everyone gathered around the telephone, crying. They told me he had died; but I was very young, and while I knew the words, I didn’t really know what the words meant. Their tears told me more.
A couple of years later, my brother and I were locking up and leaving the house for school in the morning. He said, “No one knows what it’s like to be dead.” I thought for a moment. “Grandpa knows.”
He tried once more to explain it.
“No one knows, because no one can come back and tell you what it’s like.”
“That doesn’t mean that no one knows,” I persisted. “Grandpa knows. And George V knows.” George was the fifth in a succession of short-lived hamsters that my brother had loved and lost. I was not allowed to talk about George V, so he hit me.
“I’m telling,” I said.
“If you do,” my older, wiser brother replied, “I’ll tell them what you said about Grandpa.”
Even Jesus found it hard to tell a straight story about death. First, he denies that Lazarus’ illness could be fatal; then, when he discovers that his friend has died, he first tells his disciples that he has fallen asleep.
“Oh, that’s alright then,” they reply, and he is forced to backtrack and tell them plainly, “He is dead.”
Thomas is afraid that mortality might be catching. It is not clear whether he speaks out of courage, bravado, or that cynical graveyard humour typical of grief when he says,
“Let us also go, so that we may die with him.”
While Jesus appears in some ways to have all of the control and authority over the life and death of Lazarus, he is not unaffected by the grief of his sisters, nor by his own emotions. Twice in a short space of narrative we are told that he was greatly disturbed in his spirit. Greatly disturbed: what does it take to shake God’s spirit?
I would say that it is compassion that shakes God’s spirit. The fellow feeling that cannot help but weep with those who are distressed, and that cannot hold back from wanting to relieve another’s pain. Jesus knows that his own time in the tomb is coming; but I do not think that this is what holds him back from visiting Lazarus sooner. It is his sisters. It is knowing that he will be charged with doing something that is against the holy order of life and death, and that he will be powerless to resist the grief of his friends.
For some, the grace in this story is in the knowledge that Jesus has this power to raise Lazarus at will. For all of his waiting and weeping, there is satisfaction in knowing that, in the end, he will work a miracle.
For others, the grace is that even when the miracle seems a world away, locked between the pages of an old book, dried up as the bones of Ezekiel’s army, still Jesus’ tears are fresh and his compassion as urgent and as close as flesh to sinew, breath to heartbeat. Knowing that Jesus faced the same grief, the same core-shaking earthquake of the spirit that afflicts each of us in our time, and that he still found the strength to face the sisters, and even to enter the tomb on his own account, wrapped in a winding sheet, relying only on the voice of God to call him forth.
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. (Romans 8:11)
Jesus will return to Bethany, to the house of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus on his way to Jerusalem in a short week or two, heading up to the city for the Passover celebration. He knows well enough how that will end. Does he return to say goodbye? Or does he want, against his better judgement and despite his trembling spirit, to ask Lazarus what it was like, being dead?
The good news is that the family welcome him back. They do not blame him for letting Lazarus die, and they do not blame him for bringing him back from the grave.
For none of us lives to himself, reads the Anthem at the Burial of the Dead;
and no one dies to himself.
For if we live, we live unto the Lord;
and if we die, we die unto the Lord.
Whether we live, therefore, or die, we are the Lord’s possession. (BCP,469,491)
I think that this is what my eight-year-old spirit was unable to explain to my brother: that while there is separation in death, and grief, and sorrow that greatly disturbs the spirit; still, death is not the unbreachable division that he described. For I am convinced, as Paul wrote to the Romans,
that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38-39)
Lazarus, lying in the tomb, locked in death, was not deaf to the call of Jesus upon his body, and his spirit, and his enduring life. I was not, I think, wrong to maintain that Grandpa knew, and knows, what it is to be dead; because he lives in that realm that is beyond our reach, for now, but where we will find him, and Lazarus, unbound and alive, on the day of our resurrection; where sorrow and pain shall be no more, neither sighing, but life everlasting. (BCP, 499)