5th Sunday of Lent Ezekiel 37.1-14 Romans 8.6-11 John 11.1-45
Mark Stibbe has written an intriguing article about the story of Lazarus. It’s entitled “Tomb with a view” (New Testament Studies 40 (1994) 38-54, drawing on an allusion to E M Forster’s popular novel – and the film – Room with a View.
At the end of Forster’s novel, Lucy Honeychurch has finally admitted her love for George Emerson and speaks to him about her ‘awakening’: ‘“It is impossible,’ murmured Lucy, and then, remembering the experiences of her own heart, she said: ‘No – it is just possible.”’
If we look carefully at today’s gospel, we recognise how grief can blind us to the possibility of life. Darkness can overwhelm us and almost extinguish the light of faith and hope. We see the extent to which an atmosphere of fear, pain, and misunderstanding can obscure the identity of Jesus, even for his friends.
It is almost as though death, always hungry for more, paralyses Martha and Mary with its chilly breath, rendering them numb and insensitive to the presence of the life source in their midst. Like their brother, Lazarus, they also need a new vision to awaken them.
When Jesus finally arrives in Bethany, his reception by Martha is formal and brusque. When Jesus asks Martha if she believes that he is the source of life, she answers with a collection of phrases suggesting the numbness of a grief that speaks in cliché. Jesus does not argue with Martha. He rightly expects that she will go with him to the tomb where she will see what he means. She will glimpse the view that he already has.
Mary is different. She reacts more emotionally. She falls at the feet of Jesus in whom she recognises the presence of God. In gospel terms this is an act of worship and trust; it reminds us of the response of Jairus to Jesus as he seeks healing for his daughter (Mark 5.22).
But John’s storyline then becomes unclear. It seems that we leave Mary weeping in the company of the Jews who see only death and loss. And here the language becomes difficult. In the Greek original, the words “greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved” imply a range of emotions that it is difficult to read. Anger, frustration, dismay, resentment – these are all somewhere in the mix. What is happening?
Perhaps the connection lies in the famous verse that tells us simply, “Jesus wept” (John 11.35). Again, it is the Greek word that makes the connection. John uses a verb that is found nowhere else in the New Testament, though as a noun the same word is used in the letter to the Hebrews to describe the passion of Jesus: “In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death” (Hebrews 5.7).
In the death of Lazarus, Jesus sees his own death prefigured. We have a sense, rather like at the wedding in Cana, that he cannot be forced into the revealing of that hour of glory ahead of its proper time.
The tears that Jesus sheds at the tomb of Lazarus prefigure the dark moments of self-consecration in the garden of Gethsemane. They express the cost of obedience to the Father’s will and a deep sense of compassion blended with outrage that death should so disfigure the beauty of God’s intention for life in its perfection as the destiny of creation.
The Latin poet, Vergil, coined a phrase that captures just this sense of what tears can express. “Lacrimae Rerum” is the actual Latin phrase, suggesting an image of the world’s tears, the sad, wrongness of stuff.
Tears at the death of Lazarus, tears in the passion, tears as an expression of the world’s woe; these are potent images, and we use them in the early 17th century Passiontide hymn by Phineas Fletcher, “Drop, drop, slow tears”. The final verse of his hymn asks that the Prince of Peace will only see human sin through the veil of our tears.
Fletcher makes no allusion to the story of Lazarus and the tears of Jesus that connect him with our human experience of sorrow. But the reference to tears and vision does take us back to Mark Stibbe’s article on today’s gospel and the view from the tomb.
The first sight of new life that Lazarus has is a view of the tear-stained face of Jesus his friend, his creator and his liberator from death. And for Jesus, this is perhaps the clearest sign yet of the death that awaits him. John alerts us to this in the passage that brings Chapter 11 to its close.
The Jewish High Priest, Caiaphas, unwittingly states the truth when he says to the council of the Pharisees, ‘“...it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.’...So from that day on they planned to put him [Jesus] to death” (John 11.50, 53).
Today’s gospel prepares us for Holy Week. Bring tear-stained faces to the Easter tomb and be awakened into new life. Dare to believe it is just possible.
Caption and question/comment:
The Raising of Lazarus by Caravaggio.
This painting is in the museum in Messina in Italy. It was painted in 1609, about 10 years after the more famous "Call of Levi" in the Church of S Luigi in Rome. But in both paintings, Jesus is shown in the same way.
It's worth exploring references in the Old and the New Testaments to the finger as a symbol of the power of God.
At Easter, we renew our response to the call of God.Caravaggio's paintings suggest that this call turns us away from patterns of life that are harmful and destructive.The finger of God beckons us into the kingdom which has come powerfully among us in the life and work of Jesus Christ.