The Sign of Lazarus: A Reflection on John 11

Well, here in Toronto we’ve now entered our third week of strong public health measures intended to reduce the impact of COVID-19 on our city and healthcare system. And, while it’s early days yet, indications suggest that it’s starting to work. And thank God for that.

And yet, as much as these measures are a sign of our collective commitment to life, vitality, and community, to many of us this whole situation feels a lot like a death. People are in deep grief and loss right now, even if they haven’t lost anyone to the disease. Maybe it’s grief for all the sick and dying around the world. Maybe it’s grief over a sense of lost invulnerability, or the loss of plans for the year; maybe it’s grief over lost work, or the simple joys of getting together with friends. But there’s undeniably a dark shadow hanging over us as a society right now.

And if there’s one thing that the past decade has taught me it’s that grief is okay. It’s important to acknowledge and honour our losses, no matter how big or how small. We need to honour our sense of collective grief. If you need to cry, cry. If you need to scream in frustration, do it. If you need to tap out early on the day and go to bed at 7:30, by all means. This is a hard time. It won’t do to pretend otherwise. Honour the grief.

But, even in — especially in — the darkness of this season, we remain an Easter people. And that means that hope beckons us into the future and new life. Even now. Especially now.

Today’s Gospel reading captures all of this beautifully. It begins when Jesus receives word that his good friend Lazarus is very sick. When Jesus arrives in Bethany, Lazarus has already been dead for four days. Martha, Lazarus’ sister, meets Jesus on the road, full of equal parts anger and hope: “If you had gotten here sooner, he wouldn’t have died…. But I know God will do whatever you ask…” Jesus tells her Lazarus will rise again, but her grief is not to be assuaged by some vague hope of a future resurrection. But to Jesus, the resurrection is not just a vague hope: “I am the resurrection and the life,” he says. “Whoever believes in me will live, even if they die.”

“Do you trust me?”

She says yes, she trusts him. Jesus calls for her sister Mary to come. A crowd of mourners has now joined them — the story isn’t clear whether this collective grief is a help or a hindrance to them. But the sight moves Jesus deeply. He meets their grief with his own. In compassion for the mourning and love for Lazarus, Jesus asks them to lead him to the tomb, where he weeps too.

“Take away the stone,” he tells them. They’re concerned because after four days, Lazarus’ body will have already started to rot. But, trusting Jesus, they do as he asks. And then he says:

“Lazarus come out!”

And wrapped in winding sheets stuffed with spices, Lazarus emerges from the tomb. Grief has been replaced with joy. The arid land of despair has been turned green with new life.

What strikes me about the story today is how it gives equal space to grief and hope.

The fact that Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead does not take away the fact of their grief. Their grief was real. Jesus’ grief was real. And in many ways, raising Lazarus from the dead simply postpones Mary and Martha’s loss. Lazarus will die again, after all. Grief is real. There is no human life without loss. That’s just how it works. That’s why human love is such a brave thing; it leaves us exposed to grief. Everything good in the world has an expiration date for the simple fact that we have an expiration date.

Yet within the grief there is still hope. Jesus does raise Lazarus from the dead. Their grief is transformed into unexpected joy.

And of course the whole thing will be replayed in just a few days. Jesus himself will be killed. (As John tells the story, it is precisely the raising of Lazarus that precipitates the plot against Jesus.) It will be Jesus wound in sheets and stuffed with spices. It will be Jesus whom they will be mourning. All will be lost again. And Jesus will be raised from the dead. Again, grief will be transformed into unexpected joy. This is the paschal mystery — the Wonder of Christ’s death and resurrection. Part of its profundity is that it plays itself out time and time again.

The Soviet dissident theologian Fr. Alexander Men spoke of the “paschal mystery of the Church” — how the Church has always suffered, whether from enemies without or enemies within — but how new life always found her in the midst of her desolation. “From the very beginning,” he says, “the Gospel story means victory arising out of catastrophe. Disappointment, defeat, despair, confusion — and all of a sudden, an unexpected display of the miraculous power of God.” Time and time again, throughout the history of Israel and the Church alike, God has restored God’s people to life just when all hope was lost.

And the same is true in our lives. Life will be hard. There will be times of frustration, sorrow, and loss. But where God is there is hope. There is new life. To put it in St. Hildegard’s terms, God’s power is a greening power: Weeds growing the cracks of sidewalks, a blush of green on a branch thought to be dead, an oasis in the desert. New life that is always unexpected.

Right now we are in a season of loss. Once again, we find ourselves in disappointment, defeat, despair, and confusion. And again, if this is where we are we must honour those feelings. It won’t do to pretend everything is okay, when everything is not okay. (As another Soviet dissident, Alexander Solzhenitsyn put it, “Live not by lies.”)

But for an Easter people these seasons are always met with a ‘but’.

‘But’ Jesus is still there, reminding us, “I am the resurrection and the life.” Jesus is still there, asking us, like he asked Martha, “Do you trust me?”

What the paschal mystery of life — what the Sign of Lazarus — tells us is that there is always another chapter to come. With God the end is never truly the end. And so, we cling to hope even in our despair, and like Moses, we ask God “What’s next?” trusting that there will be beauty and refreshment and new life there.

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