And now one of the friends He loved is sick …
What did the dying Lazarus think waiting for his friend Jesus who was not coming, despite being sent for with this desperate plea: "Come, I am sick, help me"?
What were the thoughts of Martha and Mary as they washed the dead body of their brother, wrapped him in a shroud, tied bandages to hold it in place, and went through all the rituals of burial? What was happening to their faith in Jesus when men were rolling a boulder to close the entrance to Lazarus' tomb?
The first words with which both Martha and Mary greet Jesus when he finally arrives are the identical: "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died." That translates into "What kind of a friend are you, Lord? You have healed hundreds if not thousands of complete strangers, even the Samaritans, even infidels, so why not our Lazarus? Your friend Lazarus asked for you and you did not come. Why?" Sound familiar? He?
Is it not what we think very often when the things are not going according to our expectations?
Am I not your disciple? Am I not following your commandments and praying on a regular basis? Am I not witnessing to you? And? You don't listen to me, you are like deaf, indifferent and unresponsive … My mother passed away although I prayed so fervently, my business is not going
Is it something wrong with me or with you? Where is the Almighty God I believe in?
Martha, the practical one, is trying to squeeze some "religious correctness" out of herself: "I know he will rise in the resurrection on the last day." She says all the right things - but does she believe them?
I AM THE LIFE
Jesus tells her, "I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live." If I were Martha, I would have agreed politely, just as she does. Someone would have exploded in pain - "Oh, yeah, sure? He will live? When? How?"
Jesus don't you see that I am disappointed and upset with you?
Oh, my friends Lazarus, Martha and Mary, how can I explain to you the unexplainable? How am I to tell you that I often put the highest demands on my closest and dearest friends, those that I love with all my human and divine heart?
How often through centuries and millennia to come will I have to ask my special friends to trust me and believe me against their human nature, experience and feelings? How many will be invited to share my sufferings and death that many others may be saved? So that we all may meet in my kingdom?
There are five distinct stages to coping with mourning and death. They are: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance.
The first reaction is to deny that the loss has occurred. We know how in such situations we often think that we must be dreaming, that the person who has died will walk into the room in a few minutes, that we simply can’t believe what has happened or that in a few moments the doctors will come tell us something different.
Later on this denial transforms into anger. We begin to accept what has happened but feel angry that this great loss has happened to us and at this particular time. We often blame the doctors, someone who has caused an accident or any other contributory party. We can also be angry with the person who has died or sometimes even God.
We see that even Martha and Mary blamed Jesus for the death of Lazarus. They bluntly tell him “If you had been here he would not have died.”
In the stage of bargaining we say things like ‘take me instead’ or ‘I’ll make some huge sacrifice if only my death or my partner’s death can be delayed’.
During the stage of depression a person often feels emptiness and lack of meaning. They are facing the loss and feel disconnected from ordinary life.
Then finally comes acceptance when we realise that what must be must be. Although the feelings of loss remain strong we understand that things are not going to change and we find ourselves able to face the inevitable.
I’m talking about these stages of the bereavement process because of the great focus on death in our readings today. It is important that we make sense of it. It is important that we have a truly Christian approach to death so that we can face it with hope and not despair.
We all have to die. But the meaning of our death is to be found in the death of Christ on the Cross of Calvary. What happened there transforms our death and this means that it marks not an end but a new beginning.
In our Gospel reading we hear of the death of Lazarus and how Jesus raised him up. But this raising from the dead while an extraordinarily remarkable thing in itself did not mean that Lazarus would live for ever. Lazarus has to undergo death once more.
The account of the raising of Lazarus in the Gospel of John lets us glimpse just how Jesus experiences the ordinary human emotions that we experience. It shows us how he grieved for the death of his friend and lets us see the extraordinary sensitivity and empathy he had towards the suffering of others. And in this case we see how he shows great awareness of the pain that his friends Martha and Mary experienced on the death of their brother.
This incident also gives Jesus the occasion to make that most extraordinary proclamation: ‘I am the Resurrection and the Life. If anyone believes in me, even though he dies he will live, and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.’
From this we understand that Jesus is the very source of all life and the very cause of resurrection. It is not that when we die Jesus will come along and raise us up in the same way that he did with Lazarus. No, it means that all life comes from him and all life finds its true meaning in him.
Our death is not a mere resuscitation. At funerals people sometimes read a poem about the deceased person being only in the next room and we understand that they are trying to convey that they will still be close to us.
But heaven is about as unlike the next room as it could possibly be. It is a wholly different kind of existence. In the past we talked about getting a ‘glorified body’ when we go to heaven. But these days that sort of language sounds a bit weird.
Nevertheless, the Church speaks like this to try and reconcile two things: the complete otherness of heaven and the risen state and the actual fact of a bodily resurrection. It is not a real resurrection unless we have our bodies, but since after death we are removed from time and space our bodies can’t possibly be anything like those we have now.
There is a lot to think about here and the Church gives us these texts on this Fifth Sunday of Lent to help us to focus on the great miracle of the resurrection that we are preparing to celebrate on Easter Sunday.
Jesus’ last words are very apposite: “Unbind him, let him go free.” Our resurrection is about a release from this worldly existence, it is about entering into the very mystery of God.
The very last stage of the grief process is acceptance. What a great day that will be if when our own death comes we have worked through all our travails, all our doubts and anxieties, and are ready to meet the Lord in spirit of tranquillity and with a deep and reverent acceptance of the will of God.