HE SHARES OUR SORROWS
I’ve never lost a close friend to death. My parents and several aunts, uncles, and cousins have passed on, but no one who I would say was an especially close friend. I can only surmise that the death of a family member affects the heart differently from the death of a close friend. Family relationships can be complicated and “messy,” so to speak. We don’t choose our family; we’re sort of “stuck” with them. Some of us may be fortunate to really enjoy the company of our families, but for others it’s painful.
Relationships with our friends are quite different. Typically, we choose our friends. Usually they share our interests, we are comfortable with them, and we may even feel free to share things with them we wouldn’t share with our immediate family, or even with our priest, for that matter. We meet them at school, in our neighborhoods, at Scout meetings, or on a baseball team. Others don’t make close friends until they get into college. Many times, we just gravitate towards each other. The greatest friends are those who, even though we may be separated from them by hundreds and even thousands of miles, and not see them for years, are still as close to us as if we lived next door and talked every day, and when we do get together we take up right where we left off.
Jesus had a close friend, Lazarus. We’re not given the details surrounding their friendship. We know that Jesus dined in his home in Bethany, which was a “Sabbath day’s journey” from Jerusalem. We have more specific details about Jesus’ interaction with Mary and Martha, Lazarus’ sisters, than the content of any conversations between Jesus and Lazarus. The Apostle John in his Gospel, chapter 11, alludes to their friendship. Lazarus fell sick and word is sent to Jesus from Mary and Martha: “Lord, behold, he whom you love is sick.” When Jesus receives the news from Lazarus’ sisters, He is “on the road” with His disciples. John writes that “Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.”
When Jesus hears of Lazarus’ illness His reaction is curious. One would think that He would have immediately struck out for Bethany and rushed to His close friend’s side, to lay His hands upon him and banish whatever illness from which He was suffering. Had Jesus not done this for Peter’s mother-in-law and countless men and women who were strangers? Surely, He would do this out of love for His close friend. But instead Jesus, in a somewhat confusing dialogue with His disciples, states that the “sickness is not unto death, but for the glory of God, that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” Finally, after two days Jesus tells His disciples that it is time for them to go to Bethany, saying, “Our friend Lazarus sleeps, but I go that I may wake him up.” Thinking that Jesus was speaking literally of sleep they assume that Lazarus will get better, but Jesus breaks to them the stark news that “Lazarus is dead.” Jesus continues with a strange declaration that He is glad for their, the disciples’ sake, that He was not there, “that you may believe.” I remember as a young boy, reading this passage for the first time, I was confused and not a little distraught. Jesus’ words almost seem callous.
Jesus arrives at Bethany and is greeted by a distraught and weeping Martha. Surrounded by grieving family and friends, Martha begins to rebuke and reprimand Jesus: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” On the face of it these words are a stinging indictment against Jesus. But Martha proceeds to utter a profound confession of her faith in Jesus: “And even now I know whatever you ask of God, God will give you.” At first it seems that Martha’s grief is expressed in anger against the one who she thought loved her brother Lazarus and could have spared him from death. Jesus declares to Martha, “Your brother will rise again.” And in response Martha states her belief in the final resurrection. Jesus then speaks the words that should be on all our lips and in our heart: “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me, though he dies, he shall live; and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die.” Profound words indeed, but just words nonetheless.
Martha calls for her sister Mary, who comes quickly to Jesus, a crowd following her. Reaching Jesus, she falls at His feet and with profuse tears repeats the same stinging words as Martha: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” John states that Jesus was overwhelmed by Mary’s grief and the weeping of the crowd, and can no longer contain His grief and He likewise begins to weep. Why is our Lord weeping? Is it only because He is moved by the grief and despair around Him? Or, does He know something about death and what Lazarus may be experiencing at that very moment? What we do know is that “He is deeply moved in spirit and troubled,” and this causes Him to ask to see the tomb where Lazarus lies. On the way even the crowd begins to raise questions about Jesus: “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”
When they reach the tomb, Jesus asks that the stone be removed. Martha protests that by this time Lazarus’ body would be exuding a very unpleasant odor, since he was now dead for four days. Jesus insists, and the stone is removed. Jesus lifts His eyes and prays, “Father, I thank You, that You have heard me. I knew that You hear me always, but I have said this on account of the people standing here, that they may believe You sent me.” Then with a loud voice Jesus cries out, “Lazarus, come out!” As the crowd looks on they see the outline of a man coming out of the tomb, and then in full daylight they see Lazarus bound with grave-clothes, at which Jesus orders them to unbind him.
A wonderful miracle, one that the troparion for the day says is a “confirmation of the universal resurrection.” However, while the raising of Lazarus is the central theme of the pericope, for me the most moving parts of this Gospel reading are the very deep and profoundly human emotions expressed by our Lord Jesus Christ. Ironically in the first centuries of the Church, the overwhelming majority of heretical teachings refused to acknowledge the full humanity of our Lord. In the last century the opposite has been the case: our contemporary society refuses to confess His divinity. It has been my experience as a priest that many Orthodox laypeople find it hard to relate to the Lord and embrace His full humanity. It is in this story of Lazarus, together with his sisters Mary and Martha, that clearly shows us the genuine depth of the human experience of our Lord Jesus. He is moved to the very core of His humanity when confronted with the death of His friend Lazarus and the profound grief and sense of loss experienced by his sisters and friends. It is this Jesus who I turn to in my daily existence, in the times of my greatest joy and depths of my deepest pain and despair. It is this Jesus who I know weeps with me as I weep, because He experiences WITH me my greatest heartaches. It is this same Jesus who on Thursday of Great Week will pray that His Father take from Him the Cup.
During times of loss, in which the darkness of despair swallows us up and we feel most alone, we can turn to this human Jesus who, while never separated from His divinity, has experienced the very same human emotions that we confront and has been tempted with the same burning temptations we face, knowing that He offers no condemnation of us but rather His loving and comforting arms and flowing tears WITH us and FOR us.
Father Timothy Cremeens is the dean of Holy Resurrection Cathedral (OCA) in Wilkes-Barre PA.