Preacher The Revd Sister Margaret Anne McAlister ASSP
In this Eastertide season on Sunday mornings in the eucharist we have been focussing on the gospel accounts of Jesus’ resurrection. For our service of Evensong tonight we have as our second reading something similar yet different – the account of the raising of Lazarus in the 11th Chapter of John’s gospel. This is an account of an event that took place (unlike the resurrection appearances) when Jesus was still alive and engaged in his earthly ministry prior to his death by crucifixion – the raising of Lazarus symbolically prefigures Jesus’ resurrection after his death. The story of the raising of Lazarus is not therefore of course a resurrection account – rather it is a form of resuscitation. Or at least resuscitation would be a closer analogy. Lazarus will have to die again. It is a long detailed account and is a dramatic moment in John’s gospel. It is after the raising of Lazarus that the religious authorities of the day are really bent on killing Jesus. By raising Lazarus to life Jesus authenticates the divine authority that he had claimed for himself. This is too much for the religious authorities to handle.
When Jesus arrives at the scene of Lazarus’ tomb, it is already four days since Lazarus had died. The dead man’s sisters Martha and Mary are naturally distraught. En route to the tomb Martha had met Jesus and exclaimed,
“Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.”
In her grief Martha is bargaining with Jesus that her dead brother might be restored to life.
Back in the late 1960’s an American doctor called Elisabeth Kubler-Ross wrote a book called On Death and Dying that was to have a seminal influence on theories of human grieving. She cared for cancer patients and as she listened to her dying patients she noticed that there were common patterns in their emotional journey. From her clinical observations Elisabeth Kubler-Ross evolved the now well-known theory of the grief cycle – that grief is a cycle, rather than a straight line, with certain stages recurring, and that there are five main stages. First, shock and denial and isolation, secondly anger, thirdly bargaining, fourthly depression and fifthly acceptance. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross observed that each patient would go through these various stages while they approached their death. Just as one grieves for a loved one who has already died, so these dying patients were engaged in anticipatory grieving for their own forthcoming death.
In the account of the raising of Lazarus in John, Martha’s conversation with Jesus (and Mary says similar words when she meets Jesus also) is a classic example of the bargaining stage – the third stage of grieving. As Elisabeth Kubler Ross states in her chapter on bargaining,
“If we have been unable to face the sad facts in the first period and have been angry at people and God in the second phase, maybe we can succeed in entering into some sort of an agreement which may postpone the inevitable happening.”
She goes on to write,
“Most bargains are made with God and are usually kept secret or mentioned between the lines or in a chaplain’s private office.”
Jesus himself weeps with emotion and he and Lazarus’ two sisters arrive at the tomb, together with a number of onlookers. Martha protests that Lazarus has already been dead four days, but Jesus affirms,
“Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?”
The stone over the cave is removed and Jesus calls Lazarus forth. And Lazarus emerges, still bound with strips of cloth. Jesus commands,
“Unbind him and let him go.”
There is a wonderful carving in stone by Epstein of the scene in the narthex of New College Oxford – a large statue of Lazarus who has just emerged from the dark tomb into the light, his neck contorted as he looks round at Jesus who calls him back to life. The statue remarkably captures the emotional impact such a dramatic event must have had on Lazarus himself. And those bandages, those strips of cloth, are very symbolic. They represent whatever holds back Lazarus – and indeed us – from abundant life. It may be fears, anxiety, doubts, jealousies, or whatever – in our heart of hearts and in our unconscious minds we will know what obstructions there may be to a fuller life with the risen Christ. And Jesus himself bids us – as he bid those around Lazarus – to let go of, to remove, what binds us. Sometimes, as with Lazarus, we will need others to help us.
On my Community’s site in Oxford there is a residential care home called St John’s Home. For some years I ministered in the Home as an Associate Chaplain with special responsibility for spiritual end of life care. I often accompanied dying residents and their families. It was always a privilege to sit with the dying, and above all to be present at the moment of death. The manner of someone’s death is distinctive for each person, and no one way of dying is identical with another. But in my experience when it comes to the actual moment of death there is always something that is much the same. As someone privileged to accompany the dying at the moment of his or her death, one is always left with the sense that the real person – his or her soul or spirit – has gone, has gone somewhere else. There is a sense not simply of an ending, but also of a continuity – the person who has just died has now entered a new phase of the journey. As Christians, we would say that the person has left this earthly life for a life with God – to enjoy eternal life in all its fullness with God. Words fail when we try to describe a heavenly existence. But this belief is at the heart of our faith – that Jesus overcame death and rose to eternal life with God. We too are called to such a heavenly destiny in Christ. As we reflect on the significance of the raising of Lazarus, and those bandages that were commanded by Jesus to be removed by the onlookers, and as we ponder on the meaning of the resurrection of Jesus throughout Eastertide, let us endeavour to let go of whatever may keep us from greater fullness of life. And let us rejoice that Jesus knows our struggles and temptations, and he constantly calls us to an ever more deeply renewed life in him.