April 1, 2017
“He was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.” (Jn 11:33)
Why does Jesus weep?
Is it for Martha, Mary and the Jews who were weeping and crying out: “Lord, if you had been here…”? Is he moved by their loss, their abandonment and their bewilderment in the face of death?
Is it for Lazarus, his friend whom he loved? While Jesus was absent, Lazarus passed from living man to corpse entombed. Lazarus was and is no longer – a shocking development.
Is it for himself, for his own loss and bewilderment? Was he, too, moved by that sentiment that touches any one of us as we stand before the grave of a loved one: “Today he, tomorrow me”?
Jesus is on the point of choosing to experience death, to drink the cup of mortality to the dregs. He is about to become the one who was and is no more, mourned and wept over, lost, abandoned. He will be that man, once warm and full of life, who becomes cold, grey and flaccid. His body will be washed and anointed, wrapped and bound, laid in a rock-hewn tomb to decompose and produce a stench. The death of Lazarus gives Jesus the opportunity to look his own death in the face, before it happens. He stands before a tomb that might have been his own. Did his heart beat faster, his knees shake? “Today he, tomorrow me.”
“Take away the stone.”
What is he going to do? Is he going in there? Does he want to look on the dead face of his friend, to take in the vacant stare, the open mouth, the waxy skin? Does he want to feel the chill of death and breathe in a lungful of its stench?
Psychologists say that by reaction formation, persons who experience inordinate fear of death or the dead sometimes develop an inordinate fascination with corpses. Mexico has seen in recent decades a great upsurge in devotion to Santa Muerte – the personification of death in the form of a skeletal woman. Devotion paid to her gives some sense of consolation or control in the face of poverty, violence and ultimately, death. In Indonesia, the Toraja people keep death before their eyes in an extraordinary way, with their tradition of keeping preserved corpses of loved ones in the house for months or years. Even after burial, funeral celebrations are repeated every number of years, with the body disinterred and dressed in new clothes. In this way, grief and loss is not eliminated, but softened by cultural sense of the continuing presence of those who have gone before – a cloud of witnesses.
Jesus, however, is about something else altogether. He is “the resurrection and the life.” He is here to face down death and rob it of its prey.
“Lazarus, come out!”
How many bereaved voices have cried out similar words before a hospital bed, a coffin or a grave, in vain. Jesus cries out his human grief in union with all who experience loss. He cries out his divine grief that death should have carried off his beautiful creation, which he did not make to die.
And Lazarus comes out. A prisoner of death is unwrapped, unbound and set free.
Each year, during Passiontide, which begins on Monday, we are given the opportunity to walk with Jesus toward his death. We will feel the rising tension and hear of whispered plots. We will be caught up in the crossfire of controversies. We will sit with him and his disciples for a last meal. And then we will step out into the darkness with him to witness his betrayal and abandonment, his mistreatment and humiliation, his torture and shameful death. The theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar says, however, that Jesus does not invite us into the depths of his misery, into the very pit of death. This is because there is a depth to which only he, the Son of God and Son of Man, can go. He goes there because we cannot, to save us from destruction. There comes a point where we, like the disciples and the women who followed Jesus, will excuse ourselves, or be excused, and this is fitting. But one day there will also be a road for each one of us to walk into the darkness. And only Jesus will know where we tread.
“When mortals finish, they are only beginning,
and when they stop they are still bewildered.
That is why the Lord is patient with them
and pours out his mercy on them.
He sees and understands that their death is wretched,
and so he forgives them all the more.”
(Sirach 18:7, 11-12)