The Imitation of Christ is a classic Christian medieval text attributed to one Thomas a Kempis, a monk who gives sound and searching advice for developing the inner life of the soul and binding it ever more closely to God. Our Centering Prayer group has been working its way through the book, and just this past week, the main characters in today’s gospel story made a cameo appearance as a cautionary tale:
The more finely you focus your attention on [Jesus], the greater your steadiness in passing through life’s successive storms.
In many cases, however, this focus becomes blurred since the mind much too quickly becomes distracted by anything delightful that may come within its purview. … Thus it was that several Jews came to Bethany to the house of Martha and Mary not only because of Jesus, but also to see Lazarus. Your focus, therefore, must be exact and on target, directed on [Jesus] and not on anything else that might chance to enter the range of your vision.[i]
He is the resurrection and the life, and it is to celebrate and follow Jesus that we come together. Still, as far be it from me to question the wisdom of my elders, I do wonder whether Thomas a Kempis is missing something if he looks away from Lazarus too soon.
The Jews who are with Mary and Martha today have come to comfort the sisters in their loss. They are there out of love for their friends and grief for their brother. Wherever there is love, we are told, there is God.
Whether it is the same crowd that returns later to check in on the family or whether they bring more friends to see the miracle that has happened so close to hand, we can hardly blame them for their joy and relief and astonishment at the sight of Lazarus restored, unbound, ransomed from death. What would we not give to see those whom we have loved once more?
Jesus himself looked upon the grave of Lazarus and wept. Jesus himself, having called Lazarus back into life, delivered him to his family and friends, saying, “Unbind him, and let him go.” Jesus did not look away from their grief or his death, nor from his resurrection, nor from his friends’ confusion and delight; he had compassion over it all.
Today, as we celebrate All Saints and All Souls, we do not look away, either, from those who have gone before us to their reward and resurrection. The saints whose example shines and the faithful souls whom we trust we will see again on that other shore: they call forth our compassion, our grief, our hope. With Jesus, we weep. With Mary and Martha, we wrestle. With the Jews who have come to comfort them, we are astonished by the miracle of resurrection, by the hope and glory of new life. And Christ has compassion over it all.
In the past year and half, and more, we have been grieved and injured by our inability to gather as we normally would around the families and loved ones of those who have died, especially those whom we remember this morning.
We have refrained for good and noble reasons – to prevent further suffering, death, and grief – but it has been a burden. Coming together now to name those whom we miss, to honour those whom we have loved, to celebrate their memories: this is a blessing.
We come because of Jesus, because in him only is our hope and trust in the resurrection and the life eternal that we share; and we come also to see Lazarus, to see in our memories and our mind’s eyes, in our prayers to see our friends, to be reminded of that hope, of that reunion, of that compassion, the mercy of God that will not leave us forever bereft, that wraps the grieving in love.
Mary said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died.” But Jesus knew that life and death would continue after his imminent Passion, and that we would need to know that even in the face of death, even in the stench of death, even in the depths of the tomb of grief, that new life is ready to be called forth. He wanted his friends, he wanted us to know that he is with us, in life and in death, whether we see him in his body or not. Lazarus was his sign, his proof, his gift to us of hope.
So yes, we will keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, who is the resurrection and the life. And when our eyes are clouded by grief and closed by death, he will stand alongside us, and unbind us from our sorrow.
For, see, the home of God is among mortals.
He has dwelt with us as our God; we are his people,
and God is with us; and as surely as Jesus wept for his own friend,
he will one day wipe every tear from our eyes. (after Revelation 21:1-6)
[i] The Imitation of Christ Book 3, 33.1, by Thomas A Kempis, translated by Joseph N. Tylenda, SJ (Wilmington, DE: Michael Glazier, Inc., 1984), 170