Sometimes I look at my son and wonder how he can be so self-absorbed, so utterly self-obsessed that the sun, the moon, the stars and indeed the entire universe seem to revolve around him. Then I remind myself: a) he has autism, this is his default mode, and b) he’s a teenager. What I don’t usually do is look at myself in the same way. Yet that is what I have been like, these past few weeks since my father-in-law’s funeral. I was glad when my mother-in-law seemed calmer, more settled and less teary, not just for her sake, but because I didn’t want to carry her emotional burden. My husband, too, has been remarkably calm and collected and because of this I have not really paid much attention to his quiet grief. I have felt sad for him, but glad that I didn’t have to deal with the ‘fallout’ of his loss. In part, I know this is because I am struggling with my own PTSD-related stuff, health problems, blah blah blah… and also fighting against my past co-dependency which made me feel in excruciating intensity everyone’s pain but my own… but this is my husband, the man I cherish. There’s no excuse; I have been selfish.
Last night my husband confided in me, and shared something which made me realise that his grief is ever-present, that he is struggling, he is sad, but it is just not in his nature to draw attention to himself. Also I suspect he is so used to being there for me that he forgot I could be there for him too – and so he has kept his head down and ploughed onwards, ever onwards, working hard and taking care of all of us. I was chastened. I spent time considering Jesus’ responses to grief:
‘As they approached the city gate, it happened that some people were carrying out a dead man, the only son of his widowed mother. The usual crowd of fellow-townsmen was with her. When the Lord saw her, his heart went out to her and he said, “Don’t cry.”
Then he walked up and put his hand on the bier while the bearers stood still. Then he said, “Young man, wake up!”
And the dead man sat up and began to talk, and Jesus handed him to his mother.’
Luke 7:12-15 (JB Phillips translation)
How beautiful, how unexpected! Jesus saw the woman had lost, in her eyes, the whole world. In the context of first century occupied Palestine this also meant she had probably lost her means of survival. Widows couldn’t own property or have a trade. Women did not have the same status as men. This is why later, in James’ letter, he exhorts those who would call themselves Followers of Christ to show love and care for ‘widows and orphans’ (James 1:27). I can only imagine the enormity of grief that this woman felt, first losing her husband and then her only child. She must have been in the very depths of despair (that much I can imagine – I have been in that swamp). Jesus saw the funeral procession. He knew that she was a widow, and that the coffin contained her only child (whether he knew this from divine inspiration or because someone told Him, we can never know). The Phillips translation puts it very simply ‘When the Lord saw her, his heart went out to her and he said, “Don’t cry.”‘ Even though His own mother would stand at the foot of the cross and watch her son die horribly, painfully, Jesus felt sorrow for this woman. I love how the Phillips translation renders this as Jesus saying “Don’t cry.” More than this, I love how the final line in verse 15 is that He ‘handed’ the son to the mother. Jesus offered the grief-stricken woman the gift of her beloved son, even though He knew He could not spare His own mother from her ordeal (what a heartbreak that must have been).
The gift of Life is the same gift given to each one of us when we choose to follow Jesus. This is a different life than just a biological breathing and heart pumping (in Greek this is ‘bios’, and is a measurable event). When Jesus talks about ‘life in all its fullness’, it is the Greek word ζωή (zoe). This ζωή is the act of joy-living, of being… It’s hard to explain and I’m not a theology scholar. To put it into context, ‘the enemy of zoe [Life] is sin’ says James Edwards, Professor of Religion at Jamestown College – read more here – and we all know that ‘the wages of sin is death’ (hence life-in-all-its-fullness is the opposite).
Anyway, I was also thinking about what happens when Jesus is with His disciples and learns that His friend, Lazarus, brother of Mary and Martha, is gravely ill. He announces that Lazarus’ illness is ‘for God’s glory’, which must have seemed very odd to the disciples – but then I imagine that life as a disciple was one long stream of wonderful, albeit puzzling, happenings. For example, the previous chapter speaks of Jesus walking around the temple getting up people’s noses and talking about sheep…
I digress… Jesus doesn’t dash off to Lazarus’ side, or even run to comfort Mary and Martha. He hangs around for another two days, and only then announces that they’re going back. The disciples are even more puzzled. Hang on a minute – we were there a few days ago, you were talking about sheep and a bunch of people threatened to stone you for blasphemy… and we’re going back? I can almost hear them! I know that’s what I would have been thinking. But Jesus knew what was happening – He knew that even though none of it appeared to make sense, it would all come together for good. Hmm.
“All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”
~ Julian of Norwich c.1400
So Jesus takes His followers back to Judea, back to the Mary who had wiped His feet with her hair and anointed Him with perfume, back to the Martha whom He told “Hush… Stop – sit and listen like Mary is” or something along those lines, when she was all flustered trying to be the ‘perfect’ hostess (how many of us would have done the same?!). Jesus walks back to the village of Bethany, and it is all – seemingly – too late. Jesus is wonderful, I mean, they know that. He healed the sick and made the blind see and the lame walk. But Lazarus isn’t ill; He’s dead. Four days dead by the time they arrive – and everyone knows death is final. There are no second chances – and in every death we witness, we also experience the echo of our own future selves. We each know that our time will come, too, to step through the door marked ‘no return’. There is a grief just in this knowledge. When we mourn others, we also mourn ourselves.
And then we have dear Thomas. I love what Thomas says: “I suppose we might as well go. Then we can die with him.” Glass half full kind of chap – I bet he was a real joy to be around… Thomas reminds me of Eeyore. Yet Jesus doesn’t chastise Thomas. He just walks. I love how Jesus accepts our stupidity, our pessimism, our unbelief – and loves us anyway, just like Thomas! I believe that, although He was both fully human and fully divine, Jesus had not experienced this smallness of self, this aloneness of being frail, being mortal, sinful and stuck. These things come from our own desperate, earthly selves. We are all small, and alone, when it comes down to it, without Christ.
The Passion of Christ, El Greco
Jesus had never experienced this for Himself, because He had never experienced being cut off from God, which we all are as a result of sin. This is why later, on the night He is betrayed, He prays for His disciples and all who will follow – i.e. you and me – and asks that ‘they all may be one, [just] as You, Father, are in Me and I in You’, (John 17:21 Amplified)
Anyway, so they arrive in Judea to a four-days-dead Lazarus and his distraught sisters and this time Mary, who once knelt as she wiped His feet with her hair, again kneels at His feet and this time cries out – a real heart-cry, the cry of the broken, the wounded, the distraught (the human?).
When Jesus saw Mary weep and noticed the tears of the Jews who came with her, he was deeply moved and visibly distressed.
“Where have you put him?” he asked.
“Lord, come and see,” they replied, and at this Jesus himself wept.
John 11:33-35 (JB Phillips translation)
I don’t believe Jesus wept because He was grieving for Lazarus. Why would He do that? He already knew He could raise Lazarus from the dead. No, He wept because He understood the sorrow and the smallness and the aloneness that comes with being fallen and frail and human. He knew and understood. In this moment He truly became ‘a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief’ as the King James version poetically says (Isaiah 53:3).
The Man of Sorrows Master of the Borgo Crucifix
‘“Take away the stone,” said Jesus. “But Lord,” said Martha, the dead man’s sister, “he has been dead four days. By this time he will be decaying ….”
“Did I not tell you,” replied Jesus, “that if you believed, you would see the wonder of what God can do?”
Then they took the stone away and Jesus raised his eyes and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I know that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of these people standing here so that they may believe that you have sent me.”
And when he had said this, he called out in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!”
And the dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with grave-clothes and his face muffled with a handkerchief. “Now unbind him,” Jesus told them, “and let him go home.”’
That last bit is so beautiful. It is so ordinary, so down-to-earth: ‘let him go home’. Our God-become-man fully understands our smallness, yet here He does it – the biggest miracle – raising the four-days-dead Lazarus, undoing the death-knell that tolls for all. In this resurrection we are given the first glimpse of something beyond mortality. In this raising of Lazarus God shows us there is a different way to live – He takes our grief and replaces it with zoe.
And, you see, that’s what He meant when He was starting out, with that first remarkable declaration in the synagogue – the one that (also) caused an uproar:
‘He stood up to read the scriptures and the book of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. He opened the book and found the place where these words are written—‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach the Gospel to the poor. He has sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to preach the acceptable year of the Lord’.
Then he shut the book, handed it back to the attendant and resumed his seat. Every eye in the synagogue was fixed upon him and he began to tell them, “This very day this scripture has been fulfilled, while you were listening to it!”’
The Holy Trinity, El Greco
I don’t know if all this has made sense. I have had a rest day today as my health is not been so good. It makes concentration difficult. This blog post has taken hours, but I had the sense of something that needed to be said – things that needed to be communicated. Thank you for reading this far and apologies if any of it has been muddled.
In conclusion, I pray for all who grieve. I pray for my Frank, that He might draw near to You, Lord of heaven and earth. I pray that You will use me to comfort him, and to comfort my mother-in-law and sister-in-law. May they be blessed with the peace that passes understanding. I pray for all who read who have been filled with sorrow and acquainted with grief. Thank you, Lord, that when You walked this muddy earth You walked right alongside us, and experienced all that it means to be human – the joy, the tears, even the mundane. Thank you that you showed how much You loved us by taking on the mantle of sin and suffering and grief. Thank you that we can ask You to share our pain and to relieve all of our burdens. May we learn, day by day, to rest in You. May we know when to speak, and when to be silent, by grace, and to love one another as You would have us love. In Jesus’ precious name we pray. Amen