Many of you will recall the horrible bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building back in 1995. Until 9/11, this bombing was deadliest act of terrorism ever on US soil. Not far from where that building stood is St. Joseph’s Catholic Church. In its garden now stands a tall, white-robed Jesus. His back is turned to the bombing site, and his shoulder is slumped in grief. With tears streaming down his cheeks, Jesus faces a brick wall with 168 empty spaces- one space for each person who died that terrible day. Inscribed at the base of the statue are two short words: “Jesus weeps.”
This statue, and its inscription, were inspired by today’s gospel. While walking to the tomb of his dear friend Lazarus, Jesus is filled with grief, and he burst into tears. John 11:37 says, very simply, “Jesus wept.” It’s the shortest verse in the Bible, but it’s also one of the most beautiful, because in it, Jesus’ humanity and compassion so clearly shine forth.
Jesus’ tears assure us that it’s okay to be sorrowful when we lose someone we love. Sometimes, well-intentioned people may react to our grief by trying to cheer us up. They’ll say things like, “We’ll, he’s in a much better place now” or “She’s gone to be with the Lord.” We certainly hope and pray that that’s the case. But nevertheless it’s acceptable- indeed, it’s normal and even necessary!- to be sad when a loved one dies. Just think of Jesus. He can appreciate our grief because he’s experienced it himself. When we cry, Jesus cries right alongside us.
In addition to sadness, however, Jesus also experienced anger at the death of his friend. Twice, in the passage we just heard, Jesus was “perturbed and deeply troubled.” A better translation might say that he “shuddered with anger.” Jesus did this first when he saw Mary and her friends weeping. He did it again when he stood before Lazarus’ tomb. Significantly, Jesus reacts the same way on two other occasions in this gospel: Shortly after he entered Jerusalem and knew that the “hour” of his passion was now at hand; and again at the Last Supper, as he foretold Judas’ betrayal. In each of these episodes, Jesus is confronted with death- either his own, or that of Lazarus. Death, evidently, makes Jesus angry.
Jesus’ anger is not uncontrolled rage or self-pity. Instead, it’s righteous indignation against death itself. Jesus is angry because death can take people well before their time, and it leaves an aching void in the lives of those left behind. But most especially, Jesus is angry at death because it’s a consequence of sin, his greatest enemy of all.
All of this begs a question, however: If Jesus loved Lazarus so much that his death filled him with sorrow and anger, and if death is an enemy to be vanquished, why did Jesus linger for two days when he learned that Lazarus was on the verge of death? At first glace, it might appear that Jesus is heartless or cruel.
In reality, Jesus did what he did to demonstrate a point. As Jesus said to Mary, Lazarus’ sister, “I am glad for you that I was not there, so that you may believe.” Jesus knew that for Mary, and for all of us, death is a great test of faith. Whenever we face our own death or that of a loved one, we come to the realization that when we enter the grave, we do so alone. Anything we may have depended on before- friends, family, finances, reputation, accomplishments, hopes and dreams- are of no use to us when we pass through death’s door. When facing this prospect, even firm believers can be plagued with doubt and fears. It’s then we need to trust that death doesn’t have the final word, and that there truly is a God, who in his love offers us an eternal, heavenly existence beyond our wildest expectations.
However, this is precisely what Jesus wanted to demonstrate by raising Lazarus from the dead. This miracle is a sign anticipating Jesus’ resurrection, but it’s an intentional contrast, too. Lazarus was restored to a normal, earthly existence. He was resuscitated, not resurrected. Jesus brought him back to life only to die again another day. When Lazarus came shambling from his tomb, he was still wrapped in his burial cloths, reminding us that one day he’d have to be wrapped in those cloths again. But when Jesus emerged from his tomb on Easter morning, his burial shroud was left neatly in a corner- a sign that his body had been liberated forever from the bonds of death and corruption. Jesus didn’t die and rise again so that we could live forever in our present state. He came that we might enjoy a new life- a resurrection life!- a life of union with God which begins at baptism, but is perfected only after we have died. “I am the resurrection and the life,” Jesus said. “Whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live. And everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”
Death brings with it sorrow and anger. Jesus shows us that. But for Christians, death can also bring our faith life to completion, and Jesus shows us that too. During his final days of battling pancreatic cancer, a Cardinal wrote of receiving a hospital visit from an old friend, who was a priest. Seeing the Cardinal in extreme pain and exhausted from radiation therapy, the priest offered words of comfort about his friend’s approaching death. “It’s very simple,” he said. “People of faith, who believe that death is the transition from this life to life eternal, should see it as a friend.”
Readings for today’s Mass: http://www.usccb.org/nab/041011.shtml