Mary and Martha of Bethany are deep in shock and lost in grief for their brother Lazarus. The sisters had sent word to Jesus that Lazarus was ill. On receiving the message, Jesus had waited two long days. By the time he got to Bethany, Lazarus had been dead four days.
“If you have ever lost someone very important to you, then you already know how it feels, and if you haven’t, you cannot possibly imagine it.” This quote is from the opening paragraph of the first book of A Series of Unfortunate Events. The author, who writes dark tales for children under the pen name “Lemony Snicket,” explains that this is how the Baudelaire children felt when they became the Baudelaire orphans after both their parents died in a house fire.
Those words of how difficult it is to convey a sense of loss fit with today’s gospel reading. Martha is hurt when she sees Jesus. She says, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Then she calls for her sister Mary who repeats that same accusation, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
Then John tells us that, “When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, ‘Where have you laid him?’ They said to him, ‘Lord, come and see.’”
Then in that shortest verse in the Bible, we are told that “Jesus wept.”
Jesus loved Lazarus. He weeps at the grave of his friend. Yes, this makes sense in Jesus’ humanity, but if anyone believed in the resurrection, it should have been Jesus. Yet Jesus wept. This shows us that grief is not unchristian. Christ wept at the grave of his friend. We too weep over the graves of those we love. On this All Saints Day as we remember not just the great saints of the church, but also the saints in our own lives, we remember those we love who have died. That remembrance comes with sorrow.
It is a sorrow that does not go away. Real grief stays with you. In fact, not only can one not expect grief to go away completely, we also shouldn’t want it to. For as the person you loved is not returned to you, how can you stop grieving? The loss remains, and so does the sorrow. But grief can and does change. We pray not for an end to the grief, but for an unbearable sense of loss to be replaced by a sorrow we can bear. And in this, we are helped by the hope of the resurrection.
Jesus said, “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.” Jesus knew people would continue to die. He taught that not only do we find death in the midst of life, but we find life in the midst of death. Those who die will live again. This is Christian teaching and it is why even at the grave Christians can and do praise God.
So while grief is a Christian response to death, Mary and Martha’s line of reasoning is flawed. They said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” They assume Jesus was absent from the situation. But we know he was well aware of what was happening in Bethany and waited two days before going. After his resurrection and ascension, Jesus is even more fully present by the power of the Holy Spirit with those we love at the time of their death.
In A Series of Unfortunate Events, the writer said, “If you have ever lost someone very important to you, then you already know how it feels, and if you haven’t, you cannot possibly imagine it.”
That is so true, and scripture tells us that in Jesus, God knows how it feels as Jesus experienced real grief. Jesus experienced not just the death of Lazarus, but also the loss of his father, Joseph. There would have been others whom he loved who died as well. In becoming human, God was and is with us in Jesus in a way that caused him to experience the depths of human pain and loss. God can readily imagine grief as our “with-us” God has known that pain firsthand.
God is not distant and reserved. God is close, caring, and compassionate. Scripture tells us that the time is coming when God will wipe away every tear from our eyes and when even death itself will be defeated. Yet, in the here and now, there are many tragedies, personal and even national or international, which cause people to question their faith.
In all these cases one hears people ask, “Where is God?” And the answer is “with us.” God was there when the towers fell on September 11. God was there when the flood waters rose following Hurricane Katrina. God is there in the tragedies large and small that have us wondering why. God is there in the midst of suffering, present with those in pain, as one who learned the depths of human suffering while living among us.
Knowing that Christ knows how it feels to experience the death of a loved one, we can hear more clearly Jesus call to put away the fear of death. Jesus calls “Come Out!” Come out from the grave. Grief is real, but that loss is not the end. Don’t let grief overwhelm you. Grab hold of the sure and certain hope of the resurrection that comes through faith in Jesus Christ.
Jesus said, “Unbind him and let him go” to those around Lazarus, and he says the same to us. We are to be unbound, set free from the power of death. For even as we find death in life, we find life in death. We know that Jesus is resurrection and life, and those of us who believe in him, even if we die, we will live.