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 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 took their places 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 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 and the others, 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 stalls, 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 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 his Resurrection was an announcement to the whole world that death has been swallowed up in victory for on the other side is the fulfilment of what began at our baptism - a perfected life. A life which is beyond anything we can imagine, but something to which we can actually look forward to with confidence.
For, death is no longer just the end of the old. It is the beginning of the new. Indeed, it is, ironically, the whole point of our faith. Death is what we are living for.
Yes. Life is precious. But no life more so than eternal life. And, of that we may be assured.
In the Name…