In the ancient world death was done differently.
The gathering of people at Lazarus tomb is a reminder of this.
The image of the bystanders mourning and weeping by the tomb openly expressing their grief is more than a little detached from most of the funerals I have conducted over the years. Our culture seems to cling to the vestiges of the idea of the stiff upper lip and exercising a certain level of control over our emotions as we grieve.
In our modern culture we have come more and more to hide death and deny its hold on us. Far less often do we see a gathering at the graveside or crematorium, and even more unlikely than this is the possibility of actually handling the body of someone who has died! Most people have never seen a dead body, let alone prepared it for burial. In all of this, I wonder whether we are trying to hide from death and avoid its reality.
But in the ancient world things were different, members of the family anointed the body for burial and open displays of grief were commonplace. Whole communities gathered around to mourn and grieve together. Tears and weeping and wailing were accepted parts of the process, even for people with such a faith as Martha’s, who expressed her hope in the day of resurrection.
Jesus response to death, and so God’s response, to all of this is not to stand separated from the awful experience of loss that we have when someone dies but rather to stand alongside us and share in our grief.
The story tells us that Jesus was greatly disturbed in spirit, and deeply moved, when he saw the grief of the community, so much so that Jesus wept. It is interesting to note that Jesus compassion is for the living more so than Lazarus – he saw their grief and loss and this is what moved him.
Jesus was so moved by the moment that we are told that Jesus brought Lazarus back to life. Of course John’s telling of the story hints that Jesus had been planning to bring Lazarus back all along, so that God’s glory might be shown.
Yet, even with this being the case Jesus compassion and empathy for those who were struggling with the death of Lazarus is clear.
It appears that Jesus understands and feels the pain of people who grieve and ,more than that, in grieving are confronted by their own mortality, which this is a fundamental aspect of grieving.
The Biblical stories we hear during Lent, like the story of the raising of Lazarus, and the confrontation with the cross itself on Good Friday, raise for us the question of our mortality in an intimate way.
In each funeral that I conduct I am personally drawn into the grief of a family and community and, so also, into contemplating the meaning of my life, in the face of the idea that there will come a time when I too shall die. I wonder ‘what does this means for me and for my family?’ It is not simply a question of what occurs after death, but am I living life as I am meant to now?
Time and again we hear stories of people who have had a brush with death, either through an accident or illness, whose lives are fundamentally changed by the experience. They begin to live differently, sometimes, but not always, in a more meaningful and inentional way.
The movie “The Bucket List” follows the escapades of 2 men who are given terminal diagnosis. In their last months of life they seek to cross items off the list of things that they want to do before they ‘kick the bucket’. After the movie people began talking about their own bucket lists. You can go online to all sorts of websites with suggestions of things to do before you ‘kick the bucket’. On one level the idea is good, but on another there were aspects of the movie, and of the subsequent movement, that seem more than a bit self centred and shallow.
Still, being confronted by our own mortality raises the question of the meaning of our lives. How are we to live? When we come to the time of our death and look back what will we see? Will we have regrets as we lie on our death bed? What will they be? How will others view our lives? What will others say about us in our eulogy? Would we live differently this day if we knew this day or tomorrow would be our last? Or if we knew there was only a week or a year or two left? How short does the time span need to be for us to have a sense of urgency to change our lives and live more abundantly?
These questions, of course, are not about our death per se but about our life and its purpose. What gives our life meaning? What purpose do we have? Is our life simply about ticking off as many things as we can before we kick the bucket?
Jesus, in response to Martha’s hope in resurrection, declares those mysterious words:
‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.’
These words, which have long been an integral part of the funeral liturgy, are also not so much about death but about life and its purpose. Life in Christ is about life lived in the light of eternity.
In Paul’s letter to the Romans, he encouraged them to set their minds on the Spirit, for the same Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead lives within them. This is life lived not bound by the constraints of death but empowered by resurrection hope. This is the same Spirit which is in you and I who have set our minds on Jesus.
In this the confrontation with death during Lent we are reminded that our life is to be shaped not by thinking about what we want to do before we kick the bucket, but how we are to live faithfully in response to God’s love and life lived for us in Jesus.
Martha hearing Jesus words of hope declares her faith in him: ‘Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.’
Jesus, who is the resurrection and the life, is recognised by Martha as the one coming into the world.
This is God’s movement into our lives, affirming our created existence – Jesus, who is God, is coming into the world. We do not have to wait for death. Life is not a simply a test about where we spend eternity. Life has meaning affirmed by the one who is coming into the world – Jesus.
Not only this but this notion that Martha speaks of as Jesus coming into the world reminds us that we do not need to go somewhere else to find God. As imperceptible as it may seem for Martha, mourning Lazarus death, God is with her. Jesus is there and he shares her pain and loss.
Martha’s comment about Jesus coming into the world should not be frozen as if it is only this moment in history, Jesus was coming, but the coming of Jesus is a continual event for us who share in the same Spirit which raised Christ from the dead.
Through the power of the Holy Spirit Jesus is coming into our existence as well. In John 14 we hear Jesus promise, “I will not leave you orphaned. I am coming to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live.”
We do not have to go anywhere to find Jesus, rather simply to open our eyes and hearts to his presence where we are now in our lives: day by day looking to see Jesus around us, in others, in the moments of our existence.
It is Jesus coming to us and his promise of life that should shape our decisions about how we should live rather than out of concern for crossing things off some list before we die. In other words: living life in God’s time.
The purpose and meaning of our lives is found in Jesus promise of life, which is a promise which does not deny the pain and loss and suffering of death but neither is it controlled by these things. So, as we grow in Christ to understand these things, so we will also be led to serving others.
Jesus restores communities and relationships, even in the face of death as he raises Lazarus! This is the same Jesus who, by the power of the Spirit and the will of the Father, is raised from death, and is the same Jesus who is coming to us. It is this Jesus that we are to listen to as we contemplate, ‘What gives our life meaning?’ A question so often raised in the context of our confrontation with our mortality is transformed into a question of faith and hope and life and love.