Growing up, the pastor of my tiny Southern Baptist Church, located squarely in Madison, Wisconsin, offered a piece of hard candy to any kid who could recite a memory verse to him after the service on Sunday. About three weeks into this program, he already had to ban two verses that were being, let’s say, overused, in the pursuit of strawberry suckers: John 3:16, and John 11:35: “Jesus wept.”
It is no surprise that this verse, “Jesus wept,” and the story of Lazarus’ death that it is immersed in, appear during Lent because Lent is a time of reckoning with our mortality, acknowledging the pain and sin of our souls and our world.
Culturally, the conversation around Lent seems to be focused far more on whether or not one gives up chocolate or Facebook than on using these forty days as a time of reckoning with our own temptations, and the suffering of our spirits and our world. Lent then is certainly appropriate for weeping: Jesus’ weeping and our own.
Lent is also a season where we reflect anew on the incarnation: what it truly means, and what it truly cost, for God to become flesh among us. In many ways, this verse is intimately connected with some of the opening lines of the Gospel it is found it, John: And the word became flesh and lived among us. For, as we will see, Flesh not only longs, sighs, eats, makes unpleasant noises a times, and loves intimately—flesh also weeps.
This story in John 11, of the death and, ultimately, the raising of Lazarus, falls right smack in the middle of John’s Gospel, a clue to its profound importance in John’s overall narrative. John is unflinching in his portrayal of Jesus throughout this story, a narrative which, we will see, is not only hugely illuminating of the pain of the incarnation for God, but really is the turning point that squarely sets Jesus up for the coming crucifixion.
So what’s going on here? In the beginning of this rather lengthy narrative, Jesus is sent a message by his, and by now our, dear friends Mary and her sister Martha. Upon receiving the news that Lazarus, whom John carefully mentions Jesus loved, is ill and dying, Jesus does something inexplicable, at least from my perspective. He does nothing. He stays right where he is. And he makes some strange proclamations: “This illness does not lead to death.”
Maybe Jesus just thought Lazarus had chicken pox or something. We don’t know. But I’m guessing from the urgency of the message from Mary and Martha, and the sense we get throughout John’s Gospel that Jesus has a remarkable foreknowledge of events to come, that Jesus knew Lazarus indeed was on his deathbed. His subsequent words: “Rather this illness is for God’s glory, so that the son of God may be glorified through it,” I will come back to. But obviously there seems to be more going on than Jesus’ disciplines or we can understand.
Jesus does eventually make his way to Bethany, but only after he announces that Lazarus has indeed died. And he flat out denies that he waited to go because of fear of those who want to stone him there. When Jesus does arrive in Bethany, four days after Lazarus has been buried, both Mary and Martha are bold enough to say to him: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Whether this is a statement of faith, or a rebuke, we can’t be sure. With Martha, Jesus speaks and tries to drive home something he’s been repeating to his disciples, to little avail at this point, to her: “I am the resurrection and the life!! Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live…”
I vividly remember reading this text aloud in my small group the summer I was in residence at a contemplative monastery in Switzerland. Each week we gathered to have “Bible Sharing Time,” which I think might have been a funky mis-translation of Bible Study, but regardless. I and sisters and friends from around Europe would read one passage slowly, usually in three or four different languages and then reflect on first our emotional, then intellectual, then prayerful reactions.
The Friday afternoon we sat down to read John 11: 1-35, I had just heard that our dear friends’ three-year-old daughter, Stella Joy, seemed to be finally slipping away from an aggressive brain tumor that had decimated her body and would no doubt soon take her life.
As Martha opened her grief to Jesus, and Jesus responded with “Those who believe in my, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die,” I got mad. Really mad. Jesus, what in the world? Duh! Lazarus believed in you. And sure, maybe you are about to raise him, great, but don’t you dare minimize or rebuke Martha’s grief! It doesn’t matter right now whether you raise Lazarus up and he lives forever–nothing will minimize the pain and trauma of him having died. Leave Martha alone, Jesus. What she believes right now isn’t the priority. Just let her feel, please.
Obviously, my anger at Jesus at that moment wasn’t really for Martha’s sake. I didn’t want to be told not to grieve for Stella. And I didn’t like Jesus saying in this passage about how “this illness…is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” Frankly, that verse sounded too familiar, as friends and well-wishers had been saying things like this all throughout Stella’s illness: “God has a purpose.” “There’s always a reason.” “She’ll be in a better place.”
Maybe it was only evidence that I have a weak faith, but that afternoon, I didn’t care one bit if God was glorified in her illness or not. I wanted Stella to walk again, to laugh, and to watch her brothers grow up. And I had a feeling that’s what she wanted too.
And then we read on: Martha leaves Jesus and goes to call Mary. Mary comes out, followed by a great number of mourners, and falls at Jesus’ feet. She repeats what Martha had said, “If you had been here, he wouldn’t have died.” But this time, Jesus’ response is wholly different. Before he says anything, he takes in the scene. “Jesus,” John writes, “saw her weeping, and he saw the Jews who came with her also weeping, and he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.”
For once in John, Jesus’ words fail him. There are no more “if you believe”’ or “this is for God’s glory.” All Jesus can say is, “Where have you laid him?” All Jesus can do is go to his friend, honor his death, be with his body. Many commentators have pointed out the significance of the people’s response to Jesus’ question of where Lazarus is laid, “Lord, Come and see,” they say. And it is in that moment Jesus weeps.
“Come and see”…those are Jesus’ words. He has been speaking them all along to his disciples. “Come and see what God is doing…” “Leave your nets and come and see…” Up until then Jesus has been calling others to follow him, to come and see what life in him meant, to come and see the cost of discipleship. And suddenly those words are turned on him. “Come and see the cost of this death.” And Jesus weeps.
Here is a moment of profound incarnation. Here, instead of Jesus calling his disciples to come and see what the Kingdom of God can be like, God’s people ask Jesus to come and see what the reality of flesh and death, of living in this world, is like. And Jesus is overcome.
I wept that summer afternoon when these words were read aloud. Because I realized, for all my anger and Jesus’ words to Martha, “Come and see” were the words I wanted to say to Jesus all along. Please: Come and see who Stella Joy is. Come and see this three-year-old with spunk and spirit and an uncontrollable love of biting people. Come and see this family that loves and grieves and sings Happy Birthday to their daughter many times a day because it is her favorite and she deserves as many birthdays as she can get.
And in the years since Stella has died, as I’ve found myself working in children’s palliative care and hospice chaplaincy, as I’ve been privileged to walk with many more families through the labyrinth of grief and confusion, these too have been the most true words of prayer I can muster in those hospital rooms: Jesus, Come and see. And though I know bodily resurrection, at least in the here and now, will not follow like it did for Lazarus, at least, at least I know that Jesus weeps.
In our culture and society, I don’t think I’m alone in saying that we do death very badly. Whereas 90% of people died in their homes in the early 1900’s, and preparation of the body for burial, and funerals, and wakes were all done by loved ones, today we outsource both care of the dying and ceremony around death. We no longer wear dark colors for a year to signify mourning, but presume, after a brief week or so off work, people will return to their normal lives and “be over it.”
Furthermore, we are so compelled, especially from the Christian narrative, to try and make sense and meaning out of death and all kinds of pain–to somehow theologize or explain it away.
I don’t know how many times I have heard phrases from faithful, well meaning people like: “There’s a greater good,” or “They are in a better place.” I think this narrative breaks those assumptions wide open and exposes their futility. Even if it is true that there is a greater good somehow, death and tragedy are still horribly painful in the now. Even Jesus felt that. As a faithful mom I know whose daughter died shortly after she was born told me: “Don’t tell me there is a reason for this. If God has a reason, fine, but, at least while I’m still here on earth, no reason will ever, ever be good enough for me.”
What I think is so remarkable about Jesus weeping here is that, presumably, he knew as his tears began to fall that, indeed, Lazarus would be raised. And not only in the world to come, but here and now. Lazarus would walk out of that tomb in a matter of minutes. And yet, Jesus still wept. He was still moved, and crushed, by love and pain, that tight feeling we all get in the chest when there simply are no more words.
While I don’t want to harp (no pun intended) on original sin, or the absolute fallenness of the earth or humankind….I do think I can say with all honesty that there is something screwed up in our world, and that something is what Jesus felt when he began to weep. Lazarus would be raised, but in that moment, for that time, he was dead, and there was grief, and Jesus was right in the middle of it.
And Lazarus was raised. For Mary and Martha, this was a joyful event. But it still wasn’t an Easter event: the reason this text still falls during Lent. Because it was actually in the raising of Lazarus that the way was paved for Jesus’ death. After witnessing the event, some of the high-and-mighty Jews went to report Jesus to the Sanhedrin, setting off the events directly responsible for his crucifixion. I suppose, of course, this could be another reason why Jesus wept that day. He wasn’t only facing Lazarus’ mortality, but his own. And isn’t that one of the reasons we, too, weep at funerals? Because it is going to be us. And though we may deeply and wholly and truly believe there is more, and better, to come, this world–in all its brokenness and fallenness and Winter–is still beloved to us. As it should be. It is beloved to God, too, after all. And really, this text is about more than just Death.
Fred Craddock writes:
Is there any place where this text does not fit? Spray paint it on the gray walls of the inner city: “Jesus wept.” Scrawl it with a crayon on the hallway of an orphanage or brothel: “Jesus wept.” Embroider it on every pillow in the nursing home: “Jesus wept.” Nail it on posts along a refugee road leading out of Syria: “Jesus wept.” Flash it in blinking neon at the bus station where the homeless are draped over pitiless benches: “Jesus wept.” Carve it over the door of a mountain cabin at which a fifteen-year-old girl stands with a crying child: “Jesus wept.” Sky write it over every greed raped landscape: “Jesus wept.”
The story of Lazarus falls in the book of John, I believe, for another reason. Because it ties so seamlessly not only into John’s deep exploration of incarnation, and what it means for the Word to become Flesh, but also into John’s insistent message throughout: that Jesus came to give divine life in all of its fullness to those who believe in him. And while it may be cliché: John knew that we cannot have life without death. Certainly not Life in all its fullness. John teaches us such a vital truth: Christian spirituality is neither escape from real life nor denial of its pain but a way of living that is transfigured, even now, by the Resurrection and Life which is Jesus.
It is that truth, that full and real and whole life can only be ours in the face of real death, that the Passion story and Easter narrative bring full force. The Lazarus story, and Jesus’ response, is a foretaste. A powerful one, surely, but nothing like what is coming. Yet, I like what Fred Craddock says:
This episode roots the spirituality of the Christian community in the realism of human experience. Christian faith is neither Gnosticism nor Stoicism. Death is real and so is the suffering it causes. Faith is not compatible with despair, but it is no stranger to tears.
No, faith is not compatible with despair. Indeed, Jesus is here to transform our lives, and our deaths, and Jesus raises to life our own death stories. Yet, Faith is compatible with weeping, even when we know the end of the story. Faith is well-acquainted with tears, just as Jesus was.
And through the veil of tears, when the hope and resurrection seem far off, when the greed and denial and pain of this world is all around, perhaps the most faithful response we can muster is the same as Mary and the mourners:
Oh Jesus. Come and see.