Ars Praedicandi: Martha, Mary, Lazarus

On this Fifth Sunday of Lent, the story of the raising of Lazarus from John 11 is assigned in the Roman Lectionary and the Revised Common Lectionary. From Catholica in Australia comes this reflection by Cathy Taggart, reprinted with her permission.

In all the years that I’ve been writing these reflections, I don’t think I’ve ever found it so hard to decide which approach to take as I have this time. It’s always a challenge to breathe new life into these over-familiar stories, but in this case, there is just so much in the passage, so many riches and levels of meaning, that it’s hard to know what to focus on in a relatively short reflection.

So, while I’m getting my thoughts together, let’s start with a joke:

Jesus called out, “Lazarus, come forth!”

But Lazarus didn’t run quite fast enough, so he only came fifth!

Now let’s get on to the serious stuff. In fact, let’s get about as serious as we can get, and focus on death. Death is the framework within which this drama in Bethany takes place. What’s more, Jesus’ own death is a direct outcome of the Bethany event, since this event becomes the catalyst for Jesus’ enemies to make their murderous plans a reality.

Thus this lengthy story of Lazarus’ death and his subsequent return to life can be seen as a turning point in the gospel, but I think it is more than that. In a sense, you could say we have here a summary of the total gospel, a summary of what this whole Jesus business is all about. To most clearly see what I mean by this, it will help to focus on the three main characters in the drama, other than Jesus himself: his beloved friends Martha, Mary and Lazarus. In order to make this focus even clearer, I have tried to imagine what their respective thoughts, feelings and perceptions may have been as they went through this most extraordinary of experiences.

Martha

Surely he must have received the message by now. For that matter, he has had time to travel here twice over, but he still hasn’t come. It’s so difficult, this waiting, waiting, when his presence would make so much difference. And yet deep in my heart, I know he must have a good reason for staying away. He loves Lazarus as much as we do, so why would he let him die, when he has saved so many total strangers? Or is he one of those people who believe that helping the stranger is more important, more pleasing to God, than what you do for those close to you? No, he’s definitely not like that!

Then the inevitable happens, and my brother dies. We have no choice but to bury him. Surely the teacher will still come – and surely this is still not the end!

At last, word comes that he is approaching our village. I can’t wait any longer: I dash down the road to meet him, as fast as I can. All I want is reassurance that there is still hope. The reassurance comes in an unexpected way – but perhaps not so unexpected, knowing him as I do. “I am the resurrection and the life” he assures me. “Whoever believes in me, even if they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die”. He is asking me if I believe this. And then, some thoughts that have been forming in my mind for a long time come together, and with great conviction I speak them aloud. “You are the Messiah, the anointed one, the one that we and our ancestors have long been expecting.”

Our eyes meet. He says nothing, but the silence seems to vibrate with the knowledge that from now on there is a special bond between us, that I have understood something that not many others have. I don’t know where this knowledge will take me, but wherever it does, I will go there willingly.

He is saying something about wanting to see Mary, so I race off to get her.

Mary

This is the worst experience of my life. How can my brother die? Until this mysterious illness struck, he was so strong and healthy. Even that wouldn’t matter, if only the Teacher would come! One word from him, and Lazarus would be well again. Surely he’ll come before it’s too late!

Oh no, they are saying that my brother has died. It can’t be! I love him so much, how can I go on without him? Through my tears I am aware that the preparations for the funeral are going ahead, and then they bind up my beloved brother and put him in his tomb…still the Master hasn’t come. Martha tries to assure me that even if he comes now, all is not lost, and although it seems impossible, I want to believe it…could it be true?

Then at last, we hear he is almost at our village! Martha races off to meet him. She’s never been able to stay still for very long! And then, she returns, saying he is asking for me. So I go to him…he always fills me with awe, I’m even a bit afraid of him – or I would be, except he is always so gentle with me. People say I am such a dreamer, so emotional, even that I’m like a child, and it’s high time that I grew up and learnt to live in the real world. But him, he always takes my side!

Even now, as I throw myself at his feet, he gently lifts me up, and the look of love on his face steadies me. He is asking them to show him the way to the tomb, to roll the stone back. Then, in that wonderful voice of his, full of both authority and beauty, he calls my brother to come out.

There is absolute silence around us: I somehow register that quite a crowd has gathered, and no one speaks, no one moves…

And then – it’s really happening – there is my brother…ALIVE!!! They are removing the bandages…Martha and I are rushing forward to hug him. I’m vaguely aware that my sister is saying something about how he doesn’t even smell now, but who cares? He’s come back to us.

Lazarus

How can I describe something which few, if any, other people have experienced? People are going to keep asking me, I know, what it was like. But I just remember lying in my bed, knowing that the end was near, and feeling at peace about that.

And then I wake up, as though from a deep sleep. I don’t know where I am, and fear grips me. It’s like a nightmare: I’m bound tightly, lying in absolute darkness. But then, in less time than the blinking of an eye, the fear has fled. I have become aware of a voice, the voice, one that sounds at the same time very familiar yet also as though it is coming from the heights of heaven. The voice is commanding me to come out. I don’t even think about it. I just obey.

Next thing I know I’m out in the sunlight, and they are removing my bindings. And then I understand. I had actually been dead, literally dead, but the great Master, who is also my family’s great friend, has freed me from death! It’s impossible, but it’s happened. In fact, I feel alive as never before, and it’s not just that I’ve returned to physical life. It’s as though I can now live fully, no longer bound by fear or worry or petty concerns or obsessions, just free to live as the Master has taught us.

Of course my sisters are hugging me fiercely, and all around there seem to be a million voices, full of joy and wonder and praise of God. Then I notice the Teacher himself, standing a little apart. He seems to be undergoing an inner conflict, perhaps he’s even a little afraid, as though there is another death yet to come..

*         *          *          *          *

So, what comes out of all this? I have called it a summary of the whole gospel because it tells us what we most need to know about Jesus. In fact, Jesus himself can be said to be the whole meaning of the gospel, but not in a cult-figure way. What really matters is our relationship with Jesus. The exact form of this relationship will vary from person to person. Maybe not many people will understand deeply who he really is – truly the Messiah, the one we’ve all been waiting for – because let’s face it, he’s a very unexpected sort of Messiah! He has no use for earthly riches or power or adulation, but he is one who has come to serve, to turn the world upside down in fact. This pathway inevitably led to his death, not because he was some kind of sacrificial lamb, but because the way of radical love would inevitably bring him into conflict with the powerful ones of this world.

So, maybe not many people will understand who he really is, as Martha did. Those who do have this gift, this special kind of relationship with Jesus, have an important role in the Christian community, as leaders, teachers and prophets – although they may be ignored or misunderstood, as was Jesus himself. (I’m convinced that Martha was a real person, and that she was someone of significance in the early Jesus community, probably in a leadership role).

But of course not everyone has to be a leader, or think great thoughts or do great deeds. Throughout the gospels Jesus shows a soft spot for those like Mary, those who think with their heart, who just love and trust and, well, just relate to Jesus. Even they can do great deeds in their own way, as Mary did in her anointing of the Anointed One at Bethany, in preparation for his death.

Ah yes, death. Years ago I read that, when Jesus weeps or becomes perturbed before raising Lazarus, it is not because of sorrow that his friend has died. People have often interpreted it that way, but that really makes no sense, as Jesus knows all along that Lazarus is about to be raised. Rather, Jesus is perturbed because he knows that this miracle will be the last straw for his enemies, that by bringing Lazarus back to life, ironically he is signing his own death warrant! And indeed, the passage immediately following today’s gospel clearly shows that that is exactly what happens.

But that is not the end. I said earlier that death was the framework for this section of John’s gospel, but it is not the heart of it. At its heart, at the heart of the Jesus narrative in general, is life. By throwing in our lot with Jesus, we can truly have life in abundance, not just in a physical sense, but in a way that frees us to live fully, to be our true selves, by which I mean our best selves, and thus to transform the world around us. This is what Jesus offered to his followers when he lived, died and was raised from the dead, nearly two thousand years ago.

Two thousand years ago? Christianity has flourished all that time, but the vision which Jesus bequeathed to us seems no closer to being realized than it was back then.

What went wrong? What is still going wrong?

Cathy Taggart

One comment

  1. Perhaps Jesus weeps because of the grief his friends Martha and Mary are experiencing. Foreknowledge of the raising of Lazarus would not rule that out.
    It’s sometimes said that “Jesus wept” is the shortest verse in the New Testament. Aside from the fact that the verse numbering was not original, that is true for the King James translation. However, in the original Greek, 1 Thessalonians 5:16 (Rejoice always) is shorter.
    As the Lazarus story is told in John 11, we don’t know how far away Jesus was at the time; but since Lazarus was already four days dead when he arrived, it seems likely that even if Jesus had not delayed, he could still have arrived only after the death of Lazarus.

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