#AloneTogether. #SocialDistancing. #StayAtHome – these are just some of the many “hashtags” being used online in the various text messaging applications currently in vogue. It is the year 2020 and here on the 5th Sunday in Lent much of the world is “sheltering in place” in order to slow the spread of a coronavirus, Covid-19. On Thursday morning there were 471,802 cases worldwide – but then that is a count of test-confirmed cases. A day later the count surpassed 500,000.
The vast majority of people are not able to be tested, so no one really knows how many people are infected. And so, we keep apart from others in an attempt to hamper the mobility and spread of the disease; as they say, to “flatten the curve.” Non-essential businesses are closed with the lucky ones able to work from home. Schools are closed and teachers across the nation are scrambling to implement online classes. Unemployment claims are skyrocketing as people are furloughed or laid off without warning, savings are draining away as families helplessly watch, and countless numbers, without medical insurance, pray they don’t experience the worst of the disease. Families worry about their loved ones in assisted-care facilities or nursing homes – family elders in quarantine whom they are unable to visit. And people are dying while family and friends mourn their dead without the dignity of a funeral. The world weeps.
In the Gospel for this 5th Sunday in Lent we see Jesus, holding two grief-stricken sisters in his arms, and telling them with absolute certainty that he is the Resurrection and the Life. Jesus proclaims the truth of eternal and abundant life in bold, unapologetic tension with his own inner turmoil as he came face-to-face with the death of his friend. “When Jesus saw her weeping and the Jews who had come with her weeping, he became perturbed and deeply troubled…and Jesus wept.” (John 11:33,5).
There are many parts of the story that leave me uncomfortable: why did Lazarus have to die for the sake of God’s glory. It is not just the dead who suffer. It is everyone around them who also suffers. But while some aspects pull me to consider them more deeply, there is one part of the story that stands clear. It is story well-suited for pandemics, plagues, death, doom, flood, fire, famine, and all manner of disease, disaster and human folly. It is an account that shows grief taking hold of Jesus, taking hold of God and breaking him down to tears. It is the clearest, most human, revelation of the Divine. And Jesus wept. Weeping in the same moment he proclaims he is the Resurrection and the Life. Weeping, for while God will have the last word, in this moment death is speaking.
This is a gospel that holds clear the promise of resurrection and joy but does not race past the moment when Mary and Martha are grieving. He weeps for Lazarus and he joins the sisters in their grief. His kindness calls us all into the holy vocation of empathy, compassionate suffering, and mourning.
This is a gospel in which Jesus, for the moment, frees Lazarus from the bonds of death. And allows us to wonder what Lazarus’ life will be like, forever known as the One-Who-Returned. Perhaps while othes marvel, he himself remembers the pain of illness, the knowledge of passing life and love, the darkness of death – all things he must relive when he again dies. I sometimes wonder if Jesus weeps knowing that, for the glory of God, he will make his friend pass again through death’s dark and silent gate.
This is a Gospel when the Word of God is silent. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” (John 11:32) There are moments when there is nothing to say in the face of loss. Sometimes tears are our best words. The Word of God himself speaks not a word and through his wordless tears show us that silence is faithful; silence is love.
In the verses that follow, the Sanhedrin speaks those fatal words: “it is better for you that one man should die instead of the people, so that the whole nation may not perish” (John 11:50) From that moment they made plans to kill Jesus (cf. v.53) Perhaps Jesus weeps as he acknowledges his own mortality. He weeps knowing he has set in motion God’s final plan – the death of the Only Son of God – that God might be glorified. He may well weep in Gethsemane as he prays, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup away from me; still, not my will but yours be done.” (Luke 22:42) In his tears he longs for life even knowing that the journey is not to the grave, but through it to eternal life.
And Jesus wept. Just like us and that is because Jesus is like us in all things except sin.
I find that comforting in these days of uncertainty when friends are families are at least 6 feet away, or only on Facetime, or just a voice on the phone line. Comforting in these days of “shelter in place” and the long wait that we all face.
The days and weeks ahead will surely bring moments when we are all brought to tears. And we too will weep as a simple virus ravages, wrecks, and rearranges our world. But may Jesus’ honest expression of sorrow keep us open to the other, move us to empathy for a world, help us to face the danger of death and the chill of isolation, mourn when we must, and celebrate when we can.
For now, we are “safer at home” as the virus runs its course. When we weep let us remember why and with whom with cry. If we weep, know that they are tears of mourning now and tears of hope for the days to come.
Ever know that we serve a God who intimately knows our life, has lived this life, has passed through death, and ever calls us to life and eternal life.
The image is of an Oklahoma City statue. Saint Joseph Old Cathedral, the oldest parish in Oklahoma City, was significantly damaged during the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah building, and the Parish House for the church was demolished at that time. The Church erected a memorial on this site. Several steps lead up to the statue. A black granite wall to the west has niches in it for prayer candles, representing the 168 victims. Standing on the steps at various heights are black granite pillars. The significance of these is not “officially” stated but many believe they represent the 19 children killed in the bombing.
In part the inscription reads: “AND JESUS WEPT / John 11 / On April 19, 1995 at 9:02AM, a bomb exploded just a few hundred feet east of here. In that instant and the ensuing calamity, 168 people were known to be killed.
Photo credit: Richard F. Ebert