Lazarus, grief and hope


It’s the fifth Sunday of Lent and for many people, identifying with the liturgical season might well be reflected in the words on a church sign I saw on Facebook recently: “I did not expect to give up this much for Lent.” For me and my family, due to an earlier self quarantine and now a state wide stay at home order, it’s been three weeks since we have interacted with friends face to face, gone out to eat, or even been able to get the items we most want at the grocery store (who knew there would be a run on rye flour or yeast for baking bread ?) And yet, I know that my family is safe, sheltered, and relatively healthy; despite my husband’s having had a high fever and cough in early March, we now guess that it was flu, and that the virus has not hit our household, or that of our small, extended family scattered throughout the country. We are lucky, so far, but everyone I know alternates between periods of anxiety and periods of relative freedom, as we try to stay in the moment and not think too far ahead to what may or may not be.

Today’s reading in which Jesus resurrects the entombed Lazarus reminds us that no matter what happens, God’s power accompanies us through everything: anxiety, confinement, even illness and death. Easter is not yet here, but the promise of Resurrection—the Resurrection of Jesus and our own—is foreshadowed in Jesus’s revival of Lazarus from the dead.

Two element of the story stand out for me: first, how much talk there is around Lazarus’s death and what the right thing is to do. The disciples with Jesus warn him that going off to Bethany might not be a good idea, because there are people who want to stone him. His life could be in danger. Mary says that if Jesus had only been there, Lazarus would not have died. Martha warns that the tomb is going to smell if they open it. Everyone has an opinion about what should or shouldn’t be done, and what could or could have been done differently. Jesus, meanwhile, is focused on God and what God can bring us: life and freedom.

A second element is that Jesus weeps over Lazarus’s death. Even though he already knows that he can revive him, and shows great confidence in God, he still weeps. Jesus’ humanity is apparent. He lets himself feel his grief and he is not afraid to display it. His tears and his raising of Lazarus are signs of love, his love for Mary, Martha, all the disciples who are there with him.

Both of these elements can go together in a life of faith: grief and confidence, tears and hope. Jesus shows us that it is okay to grieve those who have died, and to miss them, even if we have a strong faith in the resurrection. Jesus does not rebuke anyone for their grief or their anxiety; instead he walks with them in it, participates in it himself. We can do the same and hold our varying, complicated emotions in ourselves tenderly, and try to compassionately accompany others who are experiencing difficulty.

Jesus also shows us that the end of the story is not grief, not anxiety, and certainly not death. It might appear that way at times, but the core of the Christian narrative is that it ends in life. As we look forward to an Easter that is not yet here, we also can focus on what is hopeful, and look for the small but sure signs of life. We can also ask Jesus to liberate what is entombed within ourselves, to accompany us and to free us from whatever binds us, to loosen those straps around us so that we might be free to go and love as Jesus loves.