Among the many striking elements of the raising of Lazarus in today’s readings is the mixture of grief and hope that Jesus, Mary, and Martha experience. Of course, the raising of Lazarus is described as a demonstration of Jesus’s power and a foreshadowing of the Resurrection. Lazarus is revitalized, not resurrected, and eventually will die again, but the story communicates that God is a “God of the living” and not of the dead. God promises us a real Resurrection after death. At the same time, when Jesus arrives at the tomb, the gospel writer tells us, “Jesus wept.” Jesus, even knowing that he will be able to raise Lazarus, even though he is the Messiah, feels a deep seated grief at the death of his friend. His heart aches, and the tears flow. Even when we can trust that God cares for our beloved dead and that they are enjoying God’s love and life in heaven, our own grief is legitimate. We miss those who have gone before us. (Coincidentally, tomorrow, there will be a memorial lecture in honor of a late colleague of mine, Jonathan, who passed away two and a half years ago at a young age, and I know my heart will feel both fondness in seeing his family again and yet also some heartache at our community’s loss.) When Jesus weeps, we know that God personally understands and experiences what it is like to lose a friend, or a beloved family member. We feel grief, and our tears reflect the love that still connects us to another.
Jesus’ tears, though, are not tears of despair–after all, he knows that Lazarus will be raised again, knows it in a way that no other human being could. His tears, therefore, must be essentially hopeful ones. Our aching hearts over those whom we miss need not reflect a sense of despair that life is meaningless because it seems to end in death and separation. Rather, as a colleague of mine once quote in a homily the words of Dietrich Boenhoeffer, who wrote that God so respects our love for those whom we have lost that he does not fill up that space between us with himself. Rather, God respects what is human in us and preserves that gap as a way of reverencing and keeping the connection.
In encountering death, we sense the real transience and the temporariness of so many things in life: people whom we think will “always” be there may unexpectedly pass. Material things turn out not to mean very much at all. Our earthly time together comes to an end. Of course, this also makes our time together that much more precious–if we do not know when others, or we ourselves, will be called home to God, then all the more important to connect and to enjoy time with one another, and not to delay acting on what is important: to show love, be merciful, and be expressive about our loves. Then, when we are parted from our friends or family, we can trust in God to restore us to one another again in heaven one day.
Jesus unbinds Lazarus, but in weeping and raising, he also unbinds us, allowing us space both to grieve and to hope in God.