By Patrick Manning
When I was twelve years old, I came face-to-face with death in dramatic fashion. Our entire community had been shocked to learn of the death of the father of one of my school classmates. This man was a loving father, a public servant, a coach, and a man of good humor. No one suspected he would ever contemplate, much less be capable of shooting himself in the head in the basement of his family home.
Everyone responds to death differently. In this case, I responded in a particularly childish way. When the night of the wake arrived, I stubbornly refused to heed my mother’s insistences that I needed to go. I countered her appeals to compassion and propriety with my own to the responsibility I had to my schoolwork. I had lots of homework to do, I reasoned, and I just did not have the time to go to a wake that night. Eventually my mother won out, practically dragging me in tears out the door toward the car. I was utterly indignant and uncomprehending how my mother could be so unreasonable. Mine was a legitimate concern, after all. I had obligations to fulfill, and she was forcing me to break them.
Of course, the truth of the matter is that deep down I really just did not want to go. And who would? Who would want to face that room full of crying people, my classmate who had just lost his father, and that lifeless form in the casket? I had other plans for the evening and other things I would much rather have been thinking about. But instead of carrying out my perfectly good and reasonable plans I found myself confronted with something that never factors into anyone’s plans, something that none of us ever wants to think about—the scourge of death.
In today’s Gospel reading, we see people similarly struggling with human mortality and incomprehension. The action of the story begins when Jesus and his disciples receive word that his dear friend is seriously ill. Throughout the rest of the story, Jesus’ friends and followers consistently misunderstand his response to the situation, and understandably so—at times Jesus’ actions seem to defy all reason.
The first of Jesus’ mystifying actions—or in this case, inaction—comes early on in the story. The Gospel reads, “Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.So when he heard that he was ill, he remained for two days in the place where he was” (Jn 11:5-6). One might reasonably ask how Jesus’ delaying his departure was supposed to be an indication of his love for Lazarus and his sisters. Wouldn’t a loving friend rush to their aid? The question grows more acute when Jesus at last arrives in Bethany to find that Lazarus has died. Martha seems to put this question to Jesus implicitly when she greets him, saying, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (v.21). Her statement shows tremendous restraint, but one suspects that beneath these measured words lies a subtext: “Where the heck have you been?!”
Thus, even when Jesus comes face-to-face with this beloved friend, who has just lost her brother, he evinces no sense of urgency and no compunction for having delayed his arrival. When Martha returns with Mary a short while later, Jesus has not advanced one step. He waits just where Martha left him. When Mary speaks, her first words to Jesus are identical to those Martha had spoken: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (v.32). Were she not overcome with weeping, she might very well have continued, “You could have saved him! You could have spared us all this grief, but you just stand there doing nothing!”
It is not difficult to imagine how these sisters must have felt or how incomprehensible Jesus’ behavior must have seemed to them. We reenact this drama virtually every day in our own lives, both on the private and public stage: The sense we have made of our lives is torn apart when the life of a loved one is cut short or a fire destroys the home of dear friends. Our incomprehension grows when we turn on the TV or read the morning paper only to hear of yet another school shooting, another terrorist attack, or of continued brutality in Syria. Overwhelmed by the senselessness of it all and by our own powerlessness, we wonder, “Where is God in all of this? Why does God not act? What is God waiting for?”
While no answer is ever fully satisfactory in the face of such pain and suffering, I think today’s Gospel offers us at least two consolations. First, God is acting, though perhaps not in the way we would want or expect. When Jesus learns of Lazarus’s illness, he responds surely if slowly, and his response is the farthest thing from indifference. He does not avoid the pain of his friend’s death (as I did years ago as a child). He walks straight into the epicenter of the suffering, putting himself at risk of not only emotional but also physical trauma (see v.8). When he arrives, he shares fully in the suffering of his friends, so much so that all those present could tell from his weeping just how much he loved Lazarus (vv.35-36). Furthermore, if we continue reading past verse 44, we see that the evangelist links this event with Jesus’ own death. According to John, it was Jesus’ actions on that day that prompted his enemies to begin plotting his demise. The evangelist thus emphasizes that, far from remaining at an indifferent distance from our suffering, God enters directly into its midst.
Second, this story testifies that, if we fail to comprehend God’s action (or seeming inaction), perhaps it is because God is acting in ways too wonderful for us to even imagine. Throughout the story, Jesus’ followers exhibit a narrow view of what is possible. They receive word of Lazarus’s illness and assume that, if he is to be saved, it will be on account of Jesus swiftly healing his illness before death can take hold. Martha and Mary, too, lament that Jesus had not arrived earlier because they assume that it is now too late. Indeed, upon arriving in Bethany, the disciples must have recalled with disappointment Jesus’ earlier assurance that “this illness is not to end in death” (v.4).
However, Jesus never promised that Lazarus would not die. Rather, he promised that his illness would not end in death. God does not promise that misfortune will not befall God’s children in this life, but we should not infer from this fact that God is indifferent to our suffering. The truth is that God cares for us more than we care for ourselves. When God acts, God acts out of pure, selfless love. We, by contrast, constrained as we are by limited understanding and imagination, often act from a narrow self-interest. We do not merely desire the alleviation of others’ suffering; we want their suffering to cease immediately so we will not have to suffer with them anymore. If it were up to us, we would wave a wand and have it all cleaned up in an instant.
But this Gospel shows us that this is not God’s way. God does not drive by, waving a wand. Acting solely from love rather than hurt, God has the patience to suffer with us in order to bring about greater good than we could ever fathom. This is precisely what happens in this story. Jesus restores Lazarus to life as everyone had hoped, but he does so in such a way that invests new faith and joy in Martha, Mary, and his disciples and inspires belief among the crowds, who would not have been present to witness this miracle had he rushed to the scene as everyone expected him to do. Only in light of this wonderful outcome can we recognize his delay as a gesture of love for his friends and make sense of his enigmatic words to his disciples (see v.15).
We would prefer not to suffer in this life or even to think about matters as grim as death, and presumably God would prefer that we not suffer either. However, if there is one incontrovertible fact in this life, it is that all of us will drink the bitter cup of death sooner or later. Many of us will fight valiantly to seal ourselves off from such thoughts, as I did when I experienced death as a boy. But if we do so, we succeed only in giving death more power over us. Had I remained in my bedroom that night years ago, isolated in my self-concern, I would have done nothing to diminish the sting of a friend’s death or to forestall my own. I would have succeeded only in dividing myself from my community and so made myself easier prey for the reaper of souls.
Fortunately for me, my mother compelled me to emerge from my room and join the community where healing could begin. In like manner, God calls us all out from the encircling shadows of solipsistic gloom and into the light of God’s love. God does not promise that our lives will be all light, that is, without suffering; God promises only that our suffering is not meant to end in death. If we are to escape the darkness, we must fight the temptation to ignore its presence in our lives and within ourselves. We must force it out into the open and together confront it for what it is. We must respond with compassion to the suffering of others and accept the healing touch of community in our own times of need. By thus acknowledging the darkness in the world, our complicity in it, and our dependence on God and others, we take the first steps out of the tomb and into the light.
The Lenten season serves as a perennial call to take these first steps. These 40 days stand out from the rest of the year as a time when our regular routines are disrupted and we are challenged to face down our sinfulness and impending death. We alter our eating habits, take up penitential practices, and otherwise deliberately throw a wrench in our normal lifestyle in order to acknowledge in a concrete way that, for all our planning and reasoning, our lives are neither completely within our control nor perfectly comprehensible to us.
The good news is that each Lent portends the approach of Easter joy. This is God’s unfailing promise to us. Beyond the hardships of this life, there awaits a greater joy than we can possibly imagine, and in the meantime we are assured that God is present in our midst. True, we do not always feel God’s presence, but that is not because God has taken leave of us. God is always at work in our lives. If we do not always recognize God’s activity, that is perhaps because we, like Martha (see vv.23-25), often overlook the wonders that God is bringing to pass, not as we would have God do, not in some distant future, but even at this very moment.
Patrick R. Manning is a Catholic religious educator and current Ph.D Candidate in Theology and Education at Boston College. He will be beginning as regular contributor to millennialjournal.com after Easter.