Friday, April 8, 2011

Friday of the Fourth Week in Lent

3 Kings 17:17-24 / John 11:1-45

Does the evil of death, the pain of losing someone we love, count against our confidence in God? The pious might want immediately to defend God's honor, to run to his rescue. God works in mysterious ways, they will assert, and all his ways are just. They may note that there are things other than this life, things even more glorious than biological survival. Love, they will assert, is not of its nature diminished by physical absence, and so for those who love, death is no obstacle to what is truly important. They may say these, and much more besides, all of which is true enough in its own way. However, none of this responds to the fact that death does stand in contrast to our affirmation that in Jesus the Messianic age, the Kingdom, has begun, in which death yields to sovereign life.

Said differently, we would do well to hear as and even more pious response to death not so much the defense of God's justice, but the accusations launched against him, once by the woman who cared for Elijah, again by the sisters of Lazarus in Bethany, Martha and Mary. What have I to do with thee, thou man of God? the grieving mother asks of Elijah, Art thou come to me that my iniquities should be remembered, and that thou shouldst kill my son? In milder aspect, perhaps, but no less a reproach, come the words of Martha, echoed by her sister Mary: Lord, if Thou hadst been here, my brother had not died.

Neither the grieving mother nor the grieving sisters suggest that they ought not to have any faith in God. Martha, after all, affirms her confidence that her brother Lazarus will be restored at some future time: I know that he shall rise again in the resurrection at the last day. Elijah, likewise, takes no offense at the mother's words nor tries to explain to her the meaning of death. Rather, he turns her words against him to the place where they belong, namely as a challenge to God himself: O Lord my God, hast Thou afflicted also the widow, with whom I am after a sort maintained, so as to kill her son? Death, in other words, does not for any of them count against faith as such, against confidence that there is a God or that he will at some point set all things right. Nonetheless, these holy women, and the holy prophet, understand that the reality of death here and now, its very real consequences both for the one who has died and for those who remain, is an evil on its own demanding a response from God in the present.

The truth, at once glorious and terrible, joyful and heartbreaking, is that, apart from our experience of death, we, the fallen sons of Adam and daughters of Eve, cannot come to the kind of faith in God which gives life. The vision of a life lived without pain and loss and with an easy communication with Lord in the cool of the day has, since the fateful events in the Garden, been forever barred by the flaming sword, turning every way. That longing we have for the terrestrial Paradise for which we were made and which our heritage in our first parent has passed along to each of us as a birthright is for us, as we are now, not a source of hope but rather iron fetters, binding us to the body of death. It is only in death to that forbidden and lost hope, in our mind and will, yes, but also in our bodies and in the death of those whom we love, that these chains can be shattered.

In return for chains, we have the very source of life itself. I am the resurrection and the life: he that believeth in Me, although he be dead, shall live: and every one that liveth and believeth in Me shall not die forever. This life is not something delayed, something for the last day. This life, our Lord Jesus Christ, is here and now, the true Paradise of which Eden was but a pale copy, the Garden where, even in the most profound brokenness of body, soul, and spirit, we find life inexhaustible. It is life with Jesus, made effective in us by faith, that we move from the scandal of death to be able to say with our Lord of our beloved departed, Lazarus is dead: and I am glad for your sakes that I was not there, that you may believe. Yet, so as not so suggest that Lazarus' death has been instrumentalized for the good of others but not his own, Jesus adds, but let us go to him, to Lazarus, that he may, having died to this life, may receive the life for which he had always been seeking.

Death is, for us, a call to faith, a summons to see not the absence of the Lord, nor a failure on his part. It is we, those who die and those left to grieve, who must release our seeking after Eden and, through dying, hear the summons of Life eternal, present to us here and now. In the face of death, whether of thousands by natural disaster or human cruelty, or the death of one who is dear to us, God's terrible and tender mercy speaks through the divine tears of the Word made flesh at the tomb of Lazarus, whom he loved. God speaks to us the same words he spoke through Martha to her sister Mary, the words of a faith in the very source of life. Can we, touched by the death of this world, quiet our souls long enough to hear his gentle words? The Master is come, and calleth for thee.

Grant, we beseech Thee, O almighty God, that we who, knowing our weakness, put our trust in Thy strength, may ever rejoice in Thy loving kindness.

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