God commands us to take care of widows, and hungry people, and orphans, and the poor. He tells us to wash people’s feet. And he tells us to go outside the gates of the shiny city and to spend our time instead at the dump. In doing so, he invites us to give ourselves to the dying and the mourning, those who are dirty, in pain, and afraid.
Which, quite frankly, is overwhelming. Not because of the people themselves, although to be honest hungry, poor widows are not always easy to be around. It overwhelms me because it puts me in touch with brokenness and death and grief. It kindles a grief I try to keep at bay.
So as I get ready for Easter, it’s easy for me to want to skip the tomb, the day of mourning all that is broken and all that Jesus suffered. Which is why I love the story of Lazarus. Lazarus reminds me that when I leave the comfort of my safe, known and manageable life, Jesus is already there, waiting for me. When I am willing to grieve with the grieving, Jesus is grief-stricken with me.
That was the Jesus I fell in love with over a decade ago. My husband and baby had just died, and I was wondering how I was going supposed to keep breathing. I wasn’t a Jesus follower at the time, and most of my Christian friends thought this little tragedy of mine was just the thing that God would use to bring me to him. So they comforted me with lots of helpful wisdom. “Don’t worry, Tara, this was all part of God’s plan.” Really, I thought, then God sucks! “God never gives us more than we can handle.” Really? What about the people who sink into decade-long clinical depressions after great loss? What about the astronomical rates of divorce after a child dies? “If you would just put your faith in Jesus, he will give you your hearts desires.” Really? Isn’t it a little late for that? One lovely woman told me that God was wise to take my baby; after all, it would be much easier to find another husband if I didn’t have children.
Thank God for my non-religious friends. They came and slept on the floor with me in the hospital and in my bed at home for weeks afterward. They cried with me, strongly encouraged me to take the morphine I was offered, and told incredibly inappropriate jokes. For example, Scott and Sarah both died at Beth Israel Hospital in New Jersey. And whenever someone new would come into my hospital room after the baby died, my friends would cheerfully great the newcomer with, “Welcome to Death Israel.” Many people don’t appreciate that kind of gallows humor, but I do and I am grateful for friends who do as well.
I’m even more grateful for the Bible, which speaks loving truth loudly enough to call us past well-meaning Christians and into a relationship with God himself. Instead of presenting himself as a candy store of goodies I would get if I joined his team, God led me, through the only Christian I knew who resisted platitudes and explanations, to the book of John and to the story of Lazarus in the middle of that book. There, God sang to me this simple refrain, one that sounded quite different from that of my religious friends. He sang this to me: Jesus was greatly disturbed. Jesus was deeply moved. Jesus wept.
This powerful refrain changed my life forever. Interestingly, it wasn’t the resurrection that first drew me to Jesus. The idea of resurrection was confusing, even offensive, at the time. But a man overcome with grief was something I could understand and hang on to. Jesus was greatly disturbed. Jesus was deeply moved. His friend Lazarus had died, and he wept.
Why was he so disturbed? The Greek root of the word, translated here as disturbed, means to snort with anger. I love this image. Jesus so angry he was snorting. Some translations say he was groaning. Snorting, groaning, weeping. This is not the Sunday school Jesus who is gentle, WASPy, and canoodling a lamb.
Why was he so disturbed? Hadn’t he just told the disciples that the reason he waited to come was precisely so that he could raise Lazarus from the dead? Wasn’t this part of his plan? But when Martha comes out to meet Him, imploring him to use his power to fix things, he doesn’t say, “Don’t worry – He’ll be fine in just a few hours.” Instead, he implies that Lazarus will rise again, as all followers of Jesus will someday do. Then he sends for Mary.
When Mary comes out, Jesus sees her weeping, and sees the friends who have come with her also weeping, and scripture tells us, “He was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.” Next, he asks where they have laid Lazarus. When the mourners ask him to come and look for himself, Jesus weeps. When he arrives at the tomb, he is again greatly disturbed. What do we make of all of this? Why is he so upset when he knows what is about to happen?
For me, this story highlights two aspects of Jesus’ character: his hatred of death & his ability to be fully present in the moment of pain. Let’s start with the first: Jesus hates death. Hates it. The only other time we see Jesus weep in the gospels is when he looks over the city of Jerusalem and weeps at their fate. He knows that they and their temple will be destroyed. Because their hearts are deaf to him, a kind of spiritual death, they will be cut off from their land and scattered to the ends of the earth. God’s people, and by extension the world, are not as they should be, and it grieves him.
We too know that the world is not as it should be. From the global to the intimately personal, there is death all around. Divorce, and tsunamis, and wars, and lies. Hearts that are dead to the suffering of the homeless passed each day, and hearts that have grown bitter to those with whom they live. The death caused myself and others when I spend more on going out to eat than on feeding the 16000 children who die each day from hunger-related causes, Almost a hundred since you began reading this. God is aware that all is not as it should be, and he hates it.
His hatred of death leads to the second aspect of his character highlighted in this story: the ability to be fully present in the moment of pain. It doesn’t seem to matter that Lazarus will rise later that day. In this place, for this moment, Lazarus is dead and Jesus weeps. His assurance of the future doesn’t diminish his capacity for grief. Instead, it seems to enhance it. In other words, in the shadow of life as it should be and will be, this loss is all the more unbearable.
I’ve heard people say that Jesus is weeping only out of sympathy for Mary and Martha. But I don’t think so. If he had been, wouldn’t the fellow mourners have said, “See how he loves Mary.” Instead, they say, “See how he loved him,” referring to Lazarus.
Jesus is able to fully hold the knowledge of the resurrection in balance with the moment of pain. It seems to me that the church often loses sight of this balance. We seem to think that pain and grief are, if not opposites of healing and resurrection, than at least on the road to healing and resurrection. It is possible to see grief differently though. Gerald May writes that grief is “not a step toward something better. No matter how much it hurts – and it may be the greatest pain in life – grief can be an end itself, a pure expression of love.” To this way of thinking, Jesus’ grieving, both the snorting and the weeping, is a pure expression of his love.
As I read the Bible, you were not promised an easy life, or even a happy life. You were not promised intelligent, healthy children. You were not promised a marriage partner or wealth. But Praise God, we are invited to love and serve a grieving Lord.
I don’t know what God might do to resurrect the death in our lives – we may get many of the goodies we often spend so much time praying for. But I’m fairly certain that if my children and husband are hit by a green line train and killed today on the way home, he won’t resurrect them. But if they are killed, even as I rage against him for failing to be the kind of Santa God I demand him to be, I believe that he will continue to stand near me. The real comfort I take from this story isn’t that he will fix everything for me the way he did for Mary and Martha. My comfort is that if my family dies tonight, he’ll hate it even more than I will. And if I turn my ear to his voice, I will hear him snorting and weeping. That is the Power of Christ, the kind of love that allows a bereft man to write, “it is well with my soul.”
God is good. Not because he gives out the best prizes, not because he rewards our faith with favor. Our reward is not a post doc fellowship, homeland security, or even a cure for our cancer. By entering the pain and suffering and death in this world, God offers us himself. That is our reward. He is good because he never leaves us, especially in times of grief. Friendships, families and churches that miss this miss the best thing Jesus has to offer – HIMSELF.
What should we do in response to this gift – this God who groans and weeps with us when things are not as they should be?
If you are in acute pain right now, the crippling kind of pain that stops your heart, that feels as much like fear as sorrow, your response might simply be to huddle up under the cross and receive the baptism of his tears. This is the outrageous claim of our faith. Jesus weeps for you. For you specifically. It is his gift of love given specifically to you. And you can rest in it.
For the rest of us, our response might take us beyond ourselves. If you follow this grieving God, he wants to weep with you over your losses, yes, but he also wants to take you outside the gates to grieve with him over the broken world. He wants to enable you to mourn with the mourning.
Easter is great. But let’s not skip Holy Saturday.