Death is always untimely. It comes crashing headlong into our lives and into our families. Even if death’s inevitability has been forecasted and known, its arrival remains untimely. There is always more we want to do or say. There is never enough time, only the time given us.
The time death reaches your life can be filled with grief, anger, denial, and a whole cauldron of emotions. The time you are beginning to more fully realize the loss of someone you dearly loved. While a part of the shared life resides in memories, stories, and pictures, a part has been taken away – their presence, their touch, the experience of their laugh, and so much more. We mourn for the one we loved so deeply and we are awash in the cauldron of memory, love, regret, doubt, hope and hope lost, and emotions that will only rise to the surface in the time that follows. It is the universal experience.
It is the experience of Martha and Mary in the days since their beloved brother Lazarus passed through death’s dark portal. They are awash in the human encounter with death. In the midst of this mourning, Jesus finally appears – and the cauldron boils over. “Lord, if you had only been here my brother would not have died! Where were you when I needed you Jesus?” You can almost feel the pain in Martha’s voice, and there’s a tinge of rebuke and blame in her words. Jesus tells her that Lazarus will rise, but she wants her brother back now. “I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” And as many times as she had seen him work miracles, will she fully trust in this moment? Death has a way of shaking our faith, shaking that trust—it can overwhelm us and even paralyze us in this one moment.
“Do you believe this?” The most profound question; the one that brings everyone to silence. The question that asks for the ultimate confession of faith. In the manner we proclaim the gospel, too often we move from Jesus’ profound question to her rapid reply. I think we should pause, let the silence hang with tension, let the moments tick by, suspended, uncertain before finally hearing her words: “‘Yes, Lord. I have come to believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, the one who is coming into the world.’” In the silence following your question, I have chosen to trust in you. “Lord, I choose to trust in you.”
The cauldron did not go away. The heartache did not relent. Lazarus remains in the grave. Nothing changes in her confession except Martha. For Martha, everything changes. She trusts beyond hope, trusts beyond knowing, trusts without a promise of relief for this moment, and chooses to trust beyond herself and this one moment. Martha chooses to trust in the person of Jesus and the promise of life eternal.
Then Lazarus is raised. The raising of Lazarus from the grave does not lead Martha and Mary to trust, to believe, to have faith. They had already made their choice. The raising of the Lazarus was for all the others who were witnesses that day that they might witness the glory of God shine through Jesus that they might come to believe, choose to place their trust in Jesus. The raising of Lazarus is for us.
So many years ago and too young in life, I stood at the edge of a grave, having followed the pall bears to a place among the markers and monuments of other lives and loves. We watched as the casket was set in place while the rain marked a slow drum beat upon the umbrellas we held. The sky unable to choose to fully rain or to pass by and bring clear skies. At that moment, I did not hear the words echoing from the Bethany graveyard, “I am the resurrection and life.” No one asked, “Do you believe this?” I did not choose; I did not refuse to choose.
Death is always untimely. This death came crashing headlong into my life. Death had not been anticipated or expected, its arrival was unfair and decades too early. There was more I wanted to do and say. There wasn’t enough time, there was only the time given to me. I had hoped for more. I left the graveside unchanged. I eventually turned and walked into the rest of my life.
In time the cauldron settled. In time the heartache relented. In the time given to me since, in other moments, I have chosen, trusted , and now, finally, I am changed.
In my prayer and reflection about this gospel, I think my own experience of death as a private person and later as a priest has brought out the importance of the experiences of the act of trust, the moment when we choose and give ourselves over to another. As a young man, I lacked the experience of such trust and so did not choose. Now, years later in life, I have known the power of choosing to trust – of giving one’s self to another. This gospel asks us to look to all the other moments when we are asked to choose.
It is not just at the edge of the grave, but each day that one question stands out: “Do you believe this?” I do. I wholly trust that what we celebrate in this Eucharist was promised by Christ. “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the World. Blessed are those invited to the table of the Lord.” And in trusting I have been changed, I am changed, and I will be changed. Our celebration of the Eucharist asks of you the same question. “Do you believe this?” Will you trust that this is the Body and Blood of Christ? Will you trust in the one who spoke the words “I am the bread of Life”? Will you give yourself over to the promises of the Lord? Will you let it profoundly change your life?
Trust the one who spoke the words: “I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”
Choose to trust. It changes everything.