Updated: Mar 31, 2020
In the Name…
Sometimes, you just can’t invent this stuff. A letter from the Department of Social Services, Greenville, South Carolina, stated “Your food stamps will be stopped effective March 1st because we received notice that you passed away. You may reapply if there is a change in your circumstances.”
In December, 1848, when the Russian author Dostoyevsky was 27 years old, he and 43 others were arrested by the Russian secret police and accused of plotting against the Czar. The police took them to the Semyonovsky barracks where they were lined up and told they would be shot.
They were then forced to stand for half an hour in the biting winter wind, 20 degrees below zero. A priest invited them to make their last confession and Dostoyevsky kept thinking, "This is impossible. This isn't happening." But, nearby, stood a waggon, loaded with coffins.
The first three prisoners were taken to three wooden posts. Their hands were tied behind their backs. Soldiers formed up opposite each post and prepared their rifles. Dostoyevsky estimated that he would be in the third group to be shot. This would give him about five minutes before he would die.
He thought of his family and began to reflect on his own life. Here he was a living, thinking, feeling being. In five minutes he'd be nobody, nothing. His thoughts raced and became such a burden he couldn't bear it. And he felt the overwhelming fear; the dryness in the mouth; the choking in the throat; the numbness of arms and legs.
And then, when the soldiers had actually lifted their rifles, there came a shout across the square. An officer brought word from the Czar. The sentences were commuted to four years’ imprisonment in Siberia to be followed by four years of military service. For Dostoyevsky, it was an experience never to be forgotten. Indeed, years later, he would wake in the middle of the night reliving the scene.
The reality of death and its inevitability remained with him all his life and comes across in many of his novels. He described it as “the most dreadful anguish in the world."
Today in our Gospel we see how death affected the life of Jesus’ dear friends, Mary and Martha. When their brother Lazarus had fallen ill, they sent a message to tell Jesus that the condition was serious. But, Jesus didn’t come straight away. There is no doubt that he was close to Mary and Martha and Lazarus, but, he deliberately takes his time responding, so, by the time he gets to Bethany, Lazarus had died, the funeral had been held and the body has been in the tomb for several days.
I believe there is a strong rebuke in Martha’s words to Jesus when she sees him. Basically, “Where were you when we needed you? And who can blame her? And, when Jesus sees their tears and their grief, in the most poignant words of Scripture, he weeps with them.
Jesus weeps because he knows the pain death brings. As fully God, he knows what he can and will do to revive Lazarus, but he is still fully human and he feels his own personal sense of loss as much as he feels the loss of Martha and Mary. His tears are also tears of compassion. He can see how deeply death has affected them. He sheds tears because of the power that death has and the terrible suffering it causes. And, he weeps because of the grief and pain that he knows his own death will bring into the lives of those whom he loves - his own mother, the disciples and other friends. Again, even though he knows what will ultimately happen. He weeps because he can’t help it.
Death can still be a fearful thing today, even though our own death may not be as imminent as Dostoyevsky’s as he stood waiting to be shot, and, we may not be suffering the loss of someone near to us at this moment, as Mary and Martha were. But, even if it is and we are, the good news of our Gospel reading is that Jesus is the Lord over death and he is more powerful than even this "most dreadful anguish."
Life is precious. Dostoyevsky discovered just how precious when he only had a few minutes to live. And, he realised that although he had escaped death once, at the end of the day it is inescapable. Even Lazarus grew old and died again.
And, it may be cruel. It may cause us terrible grief. It may create fear and anxiety. But in spite of all of this, it has been defeated.
Jesus died. But, he came alive again. His resurrection was an announcement to the whole world that death has been swallowed up in victory. There is now nothing to be afraid of. Through the victory of Christ's Cross, we are assured of life forever. Now on the other side of death there is the glorious hope of life, eternal life, life in heaven - a blissful life, a perfect life. A life that is something to which we can actually look forward with confidence.
For, death is no longer just the end of the old, but has become the beginning of the new, the new life that God began in us at our baptism. It is just at this point that our Christian faith kicks into high gear. Indeed, this is the whole point of our faith. Death is, ironically, what we are living for.
So, if you are ever in doubt about your future after death, remind yourself of your baptism and your connection to Christ's death and resurrection. Remind yourself of your place in the family of God. For, when our last hour comes, Jesus assures us, "Those who believe in me will live, even though they die; and those who live and believe in me will never die."
Yes. Life is precious. But, no life more so than eternal life. And, of that we may be assured.
In the Name…