“But the angel said, ‘Do not be afraid; I have good news for you: there is great joy coming to the whole people.”1
Who knows what angels look like? In my imagination they are twenty feet tall, as solid as brass, beautiful enough to cause awe. The wings are an afterthought, purely symbolic, a nice touch to disguise the fact that an angel can materialize next to you without a sound, every feather in place. They don’t travel — they appear.
In the gospels, angels create fear in people, but they don’t mean to. We know this because the first thing the angel says in the Gospel of Luke is,“Be not afraid.” The angel says this to everyone it visits: to Joseph, to Zechariah, to the shepherds, and of course to Mary.
Unintentional fear. It would charge the space between angel and human like an electric grid. It would block the angel’s greeting before it could be uttered. The angel would begin, a half-smile on its face. Then raise a hand in sympathy. Do not be afraid, it would say. Please. I have good news. There is great joy coming for the whole people.
Can we command someone not to be afraid? Fear always has an object, fixed at a point in time, a location that can be, must be, triangulated urgently. A person is afraid of snakes or bombs or the ocean. Only rarely are we afraid of fear and then only because we’re afraid to name its shape. Or we whistle in the dark, saying, “We have nothing to fear, but fear itself.”
We remember what we fear, but more to the point, we fear what we remember. Simple then: just forget.
Yet, what rings in my head on my predawn walks in this winter of our discontent are verses from Psalm 137:
“How could we sing the Lord’s song
in a foreign land?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
let my right hand wither away;
let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth
if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem
above my highest joy.” (Ps 137:4-6 NEB)
There is much about the year 2020 that I would like to forget, but the things I would like to forget have been the fears of many this past year. They will be remembered as a way to honor those who suffered them. I will remember them as wildfires in our sojourn through this alien land.
Children in cages. An administration contemptuous of science. A constant assault on democratic ideals and constitutional requirements. The destruction of truth. Lying as a form of discourse. The continued grinding down of the human dignity of people of color, of women. Needless deaths in the thousands; individual deaths without justice. A fascination with the bizarre. The cult of a false messiah. A form of Christianity that embraces ruthless power and nationalism.
The stone in our shoe is how much remembrance of the past will shape our future. How much should we remember? Do we carry these filthy rags with us? Do we forget our losses and press ahead or should there be an accounting before we move on?
The past is nailed to memory, the future is susceptible to fear — but no less open to hope. If that is so, should the last four years be stripped off and tossed to one side like a dirty garment? If remembering is a form of knowing, what have we learned?
While we cannot change the past, the future is open but costly, agonizingly bought at the price of lives. Yet, knowledge is not all that is needed to create a future. Surely there must be wisdom entwined with passion. How shall we remember Zion? How shall we sing the Lord’s song?
Because of Advent, because of the Incarnation, at the brink of a new year we are invited to “be not afraid.” Afraid of Covid and its insidious reach. Afraid of sudden unemployment, eviction, illness without adequate medical coverage. Or any coverage at all.
Fear of crowds, fear of other people, fear of isolation and loneliness. Fear of desertion.
Fear for the millions who are sick, dying, or working to keep others from dying. Fear for the children whose meals are as uncertain as where they will sleep tonight. Fear for the asylum seeker, locked in her detention cell, waiting for Covid without medical help.
Fear of those who are callous, indifferent, and powerful enough to spin your life into an abyss you’ll never get out of. Fear for this country: caught in traps of its own making, gnawing its own flesh, struggling to tear itself free.
“Be not afraid,” says the angel. “I bring good news, and great joy for all the people.” We are those people, some of the many. What the angel announces is a new source of joy. It is no longer tied to a place, as holy as Jerusalem and the temple was, but to a person, an experience, and a community. It becomes portable, carried within us and shared with each other.
It is a joy as quiet as it is enduring. It is an undercurrent, rather than a ripple across the surface. It survives drought and flood, rising as blessing in the midst of adversity. Though it pierced the heart of Mary it topped up the heart of Simeon, an old man who could die joyfully, having lived to see the promised One. At times, through tears, it causes us to cry, ‘How long, O Lord?’ At other times we walk in silence.
“It is the ineffable from which we draw the taste of the sacred, the joy of the imperishable,” said Abraham Heschel.2 It draws us to the beating heart of the Spirit through whom we are brought near, no longer strangers clutching our alien gods.
”Why, then, are we frightened of wholeness? The answer is that the more whole we are, the more capable we are of suffering.”1
When I think about the judgment of God it’s usually because I see other people wreaking injustice. When I think about God’s judgment upon me, it comes down to forgetfulness or ignorance. I see a wide gulf between God and other people, a mere gap between myself and God.
Were my moral eyesight to be tested, I could read to the last line of the chart the sins of others, while only managing the larger letters of my own failings. The wrath of God lingers in the background of my judgments, justly served upon others, negotiable in the case of my own transgressions. There is exasperation in witnessing the sins of injustice; there is reluctance to cast the first stone.
As a teenager, trying to find a path to God through Jesus, I was told never to trust my feelings or my instincts. They were unreliable, fickle, volatile. Relativism and subjectivism were the dangers. Truth and certainty were the aims. On the other hand, we were told to yield to the pleading of the Holy Spirit right now. Don’t put off the decision. Don’t rationalize it away. Now is the time!
At the time, I sidestepped the advice to surrender all, more out of stubbornness than conviction. I recoiled at any hint of coercion in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. I didn’t feel I was at war with any of them. When I came to them (not “if”), it wouldn’t be through fear. It would be because I couldn’t imagine a depth to life without them.
But now I’m reading back into my experience as a teen. When I strip away the overlay of years and experience, my memory is of a confused welter of emotions, a need to belong, and a thrumming measure of guilt. What I clearly understood was how easy it was to pass as “good.” Being good in my community meant staying out of trouble with the law, getting respectable grades, not doing drugs, and being baptized into the church. All these requirements I had kept since childhood. But when it came to selling all that I had and following Jesus, like the rich young ruler in the Gospel story, I turned away.
I don’t mean a literal selling off of my goods; most of what I owned, except for my books and guitar, fitted in a couple of suitcases. I mean the packing up and disposing of my image of God.
How do we know when the view of God we hold is no longer right? Do we listen to our intuition or to our trusted leaders? Do we hide in fear? Do we dare swerve from an image of God’s nature that is corrosive to our faith?
One such image was on the pamphlet that my friends and I handed out in a small town in Northern California after church. The day was blazing hot, dry, with a light wind, early fall, probably September, hot enough to melt candles indoors.
This was all part of “witnessing for our faith,” the well-intentioned effort by youth leaders to teach us how to share the Gospel with our neighbors. I went along with it; I felt uneasy, but I couldn’t say why.
My friend and I split up, each taking one side of the street. I was carrying a pamphlet with the title, “The Great Radar Sees You.” It showed a man with a face contorted in fear, sweat running down his forehead, eyes wild. Behind him loomed an enormous radio telescope, the kind SETI uses to track incoming signals from alien civilizations. That was supposed to be God.
I tried, I really did. I handed them out to people who answered their doors. It was an awkward exchange. Most people were polite enough to accept the pamphlet. No one actually crumpled it up in my face. But when I got to the end of the block, I was done. I dropped most of them in a trashcan in an alley, and my friend and I made our way back to the rendezvous point. That was the end of my pamphlet proselytizing. I knew this image simply couldn’t be — in fact, shouldn’t be — how we understood God or God’s wrath. I sensed, mutely, that this mattered.
If there has been one constant throughout my life, it has been the need to understand who God thinks I am. That sounds trite and cliched, but there it is. By the circumstances of my childhood and upbringing I missed out on some crucial experiences but was blessed immeasurably by the love and care of my grandparents. Still, like every other person on the planet, there is a hole at the center of my life which refuses to be filled.
Like Augustine, I have adopted the prayer, “Thou hast made us for thyself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee.” But my paths to religion have not brought me rest. Like Bono, “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.” That has weighed upon me at times and brought me sorrow. But the ache for wholeness, the very need itself, points to its possibility.
This requires a certain spiritual innocence that is neither naive about our failings nor a denial of our shared reality. It means standing, exposed to the whirlwind. “To be innocent,” says Christian Wiman, “is to retain that space in your heart that once heard a still, small voice saying not your name so much as your nature . . . You must protect this space so that it can protect you.”2
The metaphor I have carried throughout the years is of pilgrims traveling light. We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses who link us to the past. We travel into the future singly, but together. We are trying to become our true selves. We are born again daily, in suffering that bears us toward the joy of wholeness.
I realized this when I immersed myself in the writings of Harry Williams, an Anglican priest and scholar who was Dean of Trinity College, Cambridge. A collection of his sermons, The True Wilderness, was recommended by a friend, whose assurance was that I would find in him a soul companion. “All I could speak of,” said Williams, “were those things which I had proved true in my own experience by living them and thus knowing them at first hand.”3
What is our experience of the judgment of God? Does it beat us down mercilessly, day after day, when our own voice is amplified by fear? Then it could also be the cold silence that we face when our days run out.
Or it could be the means of our salvation.
“Christ, our Creator, redeems us first by His wrath,” says Williams. “The wrath of God is His refusal to allow us to rest until we have become fully what we are.”4 We can believe this, says Williams, because Jesus walked this path himself.
“Who do people say that I am?” Jesus asks the disciples. It is not a rhetorical question nor is he trying to elicit the response which Peter blurts — “You are the Messiah.” This is one of those self-revelations in which the full humanness of Jesus is seen. In the Gospel of Mark, this story follows one in which Jesus is asked to heal a blind man. The first attempt at healing is partial: “I see men,” says the fellow, “they look like trees, but they are walking about.”5 Jesus touches him again and this time he can see clearly. “Don’t tell anyone,” says Jesus.
This is not a story about the failure of Jesus’ touch. It is a story about how difficult it is to see clearly, even when Jesus touches us. And when Jesus asks the disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” we hear a man struggling against self-doubt, hoping that those who know him best could bolster his wavering confidence. After all, he is beginning to realize that he faces a violent and lonely death from which God will not protect him.
Could there be a more poignant example than this, that Jesus was a man like us in every way? Who am I? he asks. Am I wrong in following to the last degree where my heart and faith are leading me? And when at last, on the cross, he cries out, “My God, why have you forsaken me?” he confirms what we experience in our extremity and suffering.
When we feel ourselves to be overwhelmed, bound by our circumstances, or spinning in the futility of our guilt, we are assured that “Christ comes to us by means of our ordinary, common experience of living. In the heartache, the fever, and the fret, there is Christ in His wrath refusing to allow us to stay as we are, reminding us of our intolerable halfness.”6
In our halfness we long for wholeness. “God’s love harmonizes us by convincing us that we are accepted as a whole . . . God accepts both sides of us, not just the man humbly praying on his knees, but also the man in a flaming temper.”7 According to the Gospel of Matthew, the last thing Jesus says to the disciples is, “Be assured, I am with you always, to the end of time.”8
All the rivers in God’s country flow into the sea of redemption, through which we are made whole. In my mind’s eye, I see a figure on the shore in morning light. Over the thunder of the surf he calls out to my companions and me. “It’s the Lord!” cries Peter, and I follow him over the gunwale of the boat to catch the wave that will bring us to his side.
Williams, H. A. The True Wilderness. Harmondsworth, England: Pelican Books, 1968, pp. 130-131. ↩
Wiman, Christian. My Bright Abyss. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013, 64. ↩
Williams, H. A. The True Wilderness. Harmondsworth, England: Pelican Books, 1968, p. 11. ↩
Williams, H. A. The True Wilderness. Harmondsworth, England: Pelican Books, 1968, p. 132. ↩
One of the surprises of growing older is to realize, on days that are bright, cold, and clean, that we feel younger than we really are. I don’t mean how we measure the occasional absence of aches and pains, but rather the mental image of ourselves that we carry, as if our present self looked with affectionate amusement upon our younger self, dressed in raiment three decades back and striding purposefully into the day.
We might want to say to that younger self, “Be mindful; listen to the sound of your footfalls; be dazzled by the choreography of birds overhead; allow yourself a smile directed nowhere in particular. Consider generosity with your time.” This private image we regard subjectively, as if we are watching a group that includes our younger self.
When we are young we think we’ll live forever, but that’s a characterization that only the old make of the young. The young might think in the abstract about death now and then, but for the most part they are just getting on with life—as they should. Perhaps we older folk confuse their attention to the present and the near-future with indifference to the terminus point for all of us. There’s time enough to think about death, much more time than one so young would think.
But time runs on and we run to keep up and much of what we grasp about life is learned breathlessly as we run. In the midst of going to college, first real jobs, raising children, seeing our parents age and become infirm, divorces, loss of jobs, switching careers, and retirement—we may have our moments of reflection waiting out the light at the intersection. Or we may wake at four in the morning, trying to puzzle out the riddle of our lives.
For many, religion is what they turn to when suffering overwhelms. “Life is suffering,” said the Buddha, a simple statement of fact in his lexicon, and he went on to offer examples. Pain, obviously, was suffering, but so also could happiness be suffering, if by that we indulge in desire before arriving at it, and bitterness when it’s gone. It was not so much the particulars within the general condition, as it was the general condition itself.
When I would introduce the Buddha’s statement to my Religions of the World classes, there would be puzzled looks and a shifting in their chairs. Almost invariably, someone would take exception by stating how good life was—or could be—if we would just quit moping around and be happy. It was almost an affront—almost unAmerican—to admit to anything less than the best of all possible worlds. But others, those who would speak up hesitantly after others had had their say, would ask if the loss of innocence was suffering or if the pang of never arriving at a place one could call home counted as suffering.
Epicurus, working his garden and discussing philosophy with his students in Athens in the fourth century BCE, took the long view. “Death,” he said, “the most awful of evils, is nothing to us, seeing that when we are, death is not yet, and when death comes, we are not.”2 Serenity in the face of the inevitable contrasted vividly with Dylan Thomas’ anguished cry to his dying father, to “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”3
Augustine, whose book Confessions, is the first and longest open prayer to God, pours out his heart about the death of his best friend, unnamed to us.
“Well it was said of a friend that he is the soul’s other half. My soul and his I considered one soul in two bodies—so my life was unbearable, to live with only half of our soul, but my death was terrifying, perhaps to see his remaining half of soul die in me whom I so much loved.”4
Augustine fears death, not so much for himself, as for the extinction, finally, of his friend. Half a life is better than none at all. But that was when Augustine was a pagan.
Some years later Augustine has a different reaction to the death of his mother, Monica. She had been praying and weeping and beseeching for his conversion for years. When it occurs, as Augustine dramatically describes in the Confessions, her life’s work seems complete. Some days later she falls under a high fever and within nine days is dead. Augustine, in private, loosens the tears he had held in, “resting softly on my sobs at ease.”
He writes, somewhat defensively, “whoever wishes can read me and, as he wishes, decide whether I mourned my mother excessively, by this or that part of an hour, but not deride me for it.”5 He is asking us not to judge him too harshly for weeping over his mother’s death, even though his weeping was for less than an hour. His grief is doubled, he says, by the fact that he is grieving. Apparently, he believed that for a Christian, such grief is unbecoming. In his own eyes Augustine is condemned for not having enough reliance on God to tough it out without giving way to his emotions. But we grieve because we love and a love that is not grieved is less than love.
And yet later, when his own precocious Adeodatus, a fine young man of seventeen, his son by a long-time mistress, is suddenly struck down, Augustine is at peace, for both of them—father and son—had been baptized on the same day. He does not weep nor break stride as he goes about his duties. His son is with God. And as he looks toward the Resurrection, missing Monica, Augustine foresees his own Mother and Child Reunion—an event greatly to be anticipated.
For Christians, Augustine tells us, our fear of death diminishes the nearer we are to God.
But not everyone has seen it quite that way. Consider Michel Montaigne (1533-1592), Renaissance statesman, philosopher, part of the nobility in France at that time, and the father of the modern essay. When Montaigne was thirty-six, he had a near-death experience. He was riding in the forest with three or four companions, servants in his household, musing over something intriguing to him, when suddenly he took a tremendous blow to his back, was flung from his horse, and landed ten yards away, unconscious. It seems that one of his men, a burly fellow, had spurred his horse to full gallop to impress his friends, and had misjudged the distance between himself and his master, inadvertently knocking Montaigne and his little horse off the path.
Sara Bakewell tells the story in her book, How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne.6 At the time, Montaigne felt himself to be drifting peacefully toward eternal sleep, although he was actually retching up blood and tearing at his belly as though to claw it open for release. For days he lay in bed recovering, full of aches and grievous pains, marveling at the experience he’d had and trying to recall every moment of it. It changed his life, which, until then, had been dedicated to learning how to die with equanimity and grace.
In an essay on death, written some years after the incident, Montaigne rather offhandedly sums up the lesson: “If you don’t know how to die, don’t worry. Nature will tell you what to do on the spot, fully and adequately. She will do this job perfectly for you; don’t bother your head about it.”7
Bakewell notes that this became Montaigne’s answer to the question of how to live. In fact, not worrying about death made it possible to really live. In an era in which a man of thirty-six could, by the limits of those times, see himself on the verge of getting old, the contemplation of death had been refined to a high art. Montaigne picked this up from his voluminous study of the Greek and Roman classics, his admiration for the Stoics, like Seneca, and the Roman orator, statesman and philosopher, Cicero, who famously wrote, “To philosophize is to learn how to die.”
Death was an obsession for Montaigne when he was in his twenties and early thirties. In succession, his best friend died of the plague in 1563, his father died in 1568, and in 1569 his younger brother died in a freak sporting accident. In that same year Montaigne got married; his first child, born that same year lived only two months. Montaigne lost four more children, only one of six living to adulthood. Yet, in spite of all that early sorrowful practice, he had grown no easier with death.
It wasn’t until his near-fatal accident that he began to understand how little his own death need affect his life. His memory of it was one of peaceful release; he had almost kissed Death on the lips. From that experience he gradually migrated from the fear of dying to the love of life.
Sometimes, we may be so concerned with dying that we forget the point is to live.
Lewis Lapham, the editor of Lapham’s Quarterly, parses the difference between how he was raised to think about death as a young man in the 50s, and today. He says that several thousand years of art, literature, and religion raise the question, “Why must I die?” And the natural follow-up question is, “How do I live my life?” Our question today is, “Why can’t I live forever?” And that, says Lapham, consigns the custody of one’s death to powers that promote the fear of it, among them the church, the state, the biochemical engineers, and those who will profit from our endless war against terrorism.8
If religion functions as a device (and I use the word deliberately) to ingratiate us to an absent god or to palliate the pain of our swollen egos, then it belongs in the medicine cabinet alongside the opiate of the people. But if it is so engrained in our being that it is first about being and only then about doing, then we have something that can see us through the valleys of suffering on the way to death.
“Religion is not the answer to the unknowable or the unfaceable or the unendurable,” says Peter Gomes in The Good Book; ”religion is what we do and what we are in the face of the unknowable, the unfaceable, and the unendurable. It is a constant exercise in the making of sense first, and then of meaning.”9
As a person of faith, I am grateful for the insight of Eamon Duffy who says of the Christian’s way, “Our dignity and our burden is to be that part of creation which is conscious not only of itself but of its finitude,” and, “We sing to the light in the midst of a darkness which we know will one day devour us.”10
We may sing, not because we are indifferent to death, not because we resent the encroachment of death upon our absolute right to endless life right now, but because “This is eternal life: to know thee who alone art truly God, and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent.”11
Thomas, R. S. Selected Poems 1946-1968. Newcastle upon Tyne: Bloodaxe Books, 1986, p. 13. ↩
In Lapham, Lewis. Lapham’s Quarterly. “Memento Mori, ”Vol. VI, No. 4, Fall 2013, p. 15. ↩
Thomas, Dylan. Miscellany One. London: J. M. Dent & Sons, 1963, p. 31. ↩
Saint Augustine, Confessions. Translated and with an introduction by Garry Wills. New York: Penguin Books, p. 68. ↩
”. . . and the dream outlasts/Death, and the dreamer will never die.”1
What is fearful is usually evil, says Aristotle. We fear poverty, disrepute, disease, being friendless, death. But a courageous person, Aristotle continues, is not concerned with all of these. Some things are worse than others, and some things are more to be feared than others. “A man who fears disrepute is decent and has a sense of shame, a man who does not fear it is shameless.”2 A person’s character was reflected in his or her deeds and one’s deeds were the legacy that survived one’s death. Courage in battle was most often praised, for it stood against the natural fear of danger and of death. As a veteran himself, Aristotle knew what it took to stand one’s ground when instincts of self-preservation fought with virtue.
Even more to be admired was the person who displayed courage when caught up in unexpected danger. “It is a mark of even greater courage to be fearless and unruffled when suddenly faced with a terrifying situation than when the danger is clear beforehand.” When we have time to prepare, we may resolve to be courageous—think of the men in transport ships approaching the coast of Normandy on D-Day. But what of those suddenly caught in an ambush when out on patrol? “When we see what is coming, we can make a choice,” notes Aristotle, “based on calculation and guided by reason, but when a situation arises suddenly our actions are determined by our characteristics.”
Since courage displayed is the result of virtue practiced, those who display it when startled have courage at the core of their being. But whether anticipated or arising in the moment, courage is noble and elevates the soul.
It is winter and Jesus is sowing discord in the temple precincts. Walking in Solomon’s Cloister with the disciples, he is surrounded by a group of surly priests who demand to know who he thinks he is. “If you are the Messiah say so plainly.” And Jesus says something like, I already have but you don’t believe. My actions are my credentials. You don’t believe because you are not one of mine. If you were, you would know that nobody can snatch my own from me because my Father and I are one.
If they’d had guns the safeties would have clicked off. As it is, they pick up rocks. You have to work with what you’ve got. Jesus shrugs and asks for which of the good deeds God has done through him are they going to stone him? Not for any of that, they say, but for you claiming to be a god. Well, says Jesus, doesn’t your scripture say you are gods? Gods are people who have received the word of God—and you can’t set aside Scripture. So why charge me with blasphemy, a person sent into the world by God, because I say I am God’s son?
The disciples are watching this verbal ping-pong with increasing dread. And Jesus throws a parting shot: If you don’t believe what I say at least believe what I do, that God is in me and I am in God. Time to go, fellas. “This provoked them to one more attempt to seize him. But he escaped from their clutches (John 10:39).”
Jesus and the disciples are across the Jordan, back where John first baptized Jesus. The crowds that come out to see him there recall that while John hadn’t done anything miraculous, everything he’d said about Jesus had come true. Among other things, John had been certain that Jesus was “God’s Chosen One,” and it sure looked like it, given all the people he had healed and the demons driven out and sight restored to the blind.
People were still talking about Jesus healing the man who was born blind. It was the general belief that something that unlucky had to be assigned blame. “Who sinned,” the disciples asked, “this man or his parents?” Neither one, said Jesus. This is an opportunity to show God’s power in healing him. So he spit on the ground and made a paste of the mud and put it on the fellow’s eyes and told him to go wash it off in the pool at Siloam. The man went and washed and when he came back he could see. But he didn’t see Jesus because Jesus had gone, leaving one grateful man awash in controversy. It can’t be him, said his neighbors. Must be someone who looks like him. Who healed you, they ask? Jesus did it, said the man. Where is he? I don’t know, he answered.
Later, the Pharisees hauled him up for questioning because Jesus healed him on the Sabbath. Who did this to you, they demanded. So he ran through the story again, just the facts: I was blind, Jesus put mud on my eyes and told me to wash. I did and now I can see. That set them off again. The nub of the argument was that the Sabbath commandment had been shattered, thus the healing was not of God. Others felt that the very rarity of the event pointed to a divine intervention. There was also a strong feeling in certain quarters that the man was lying about being born blind. Get his parents in here, they snarled. Is this your son? Was he really born blind? Don’t ask us, they snapped. He can answer for himself. Yes, he was born blind and no, we don’t know how he was healed. They were afraid of being expelled from the synagogue.
So they summoned the man again, swore him to tell the truth before God, and denounced Jesus as a sinner. I don’t know about that, retorted the fellow. All I know is that I was blind and now I see. Can’t have been that easy, they cried. There was some gnashing of teeth. What did he do to you? You really want me to go through it all again, asked the man? You want to be his disciples too?
It got ugly. You’re his disciple, they said. We follow Moses and we know God spoke to Moses. But we don’t know where this one came from. Astonishing, said the man, because since time began no one born blind has gained their sight. If he wasn’t from God, how could this have happened? Don’t be giving us lessons, they yelled. Flecks of foam appeared at the corners of their mouths. You—born and bred in sin! And they threw him out of the synagogue.
Later, Jesus found him and said, “Do you have faith in the Son of Man?” Tell me who he is, said the man. You’re looking at him, said Jesus. “Lord, I believe, he said, and bowed before him.”
All of this was prologue. The fear the authorities held of Jesus was that his power and charisma would inflame the people; it meant they watched his every move.
Lazarus has died. In fact, he’s been dead for four days, and in the meantime Jesus has dawdled. The word had come that Lazarus was deathly ill; it was his sister Martha who sent it from the village of Bethany, two miles from Jerusalem. Blithely, it seemed, Jesus brushed it aside. “This sickness will not end in death,” he said, but it did. Was he naive or just in denial? This has come about, said Jesus, so that God can be glorified. The disciples were appalled. They knew he loved Lazarus and his sisters, but he deliberately stayed in place for two more days, ensuring that Lazarus would be good and dead.
Let’s go down there, said Jesus, back to Judea. Are you serious? asked the disciples incredulously. Last time we were there you were almost killed. Twice, in fact. We doubt they’ve forgotten, and they sure haven’t forgiven. We must work while there’s light, he said. And then he added, almost as an afterthought: “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I shall go and wake him.” Ah well, perhaps we were wrong, said the disciples, and Lazarus is sleeping it off. He’ll recover, then?
But Jesus said plainly, “Lazarus is dead.” He went on to say that he was glad it turned out this way because it would be good for their faith, Lazarus being dead and all. Then they understood what a high-wire act this was. It was a trap. He—and they—would be tracked, arrested, and killed. Jesus would no more avoid this than the priests and their spies could refrain from catching him out. After the healing of the blind man—and the stir that caused—“waking” Lazarus would be the last straw. “But let us go to him,” said Jesus.
All the signs pointed to an early and violent death for Jesus—and probably for those most closely gathered around him. His actions posed a threat to the whole nation, as the priests tried to keep the fragile peace with the Romans. He had the power to incite the people. What if he acted on it? Even if he didn’t seize power the people might rise up in his name. It was a risk that could not be tolerated. Better the death of one than the end of the nation and the temple.
It was the raising of Lazarus that set the final plot in motion to bring Jesus down. While many who came to console Mary and Martha found their faith in Jesus after seeing Lazarus raised, others went directly to the priests and Pharisees to report the clear and present danger of Jesus. “So from that day on they plotted his death (John 11:53).”
Thomas, the Twin (early Christian legend has it that he had a twin sister, Lydia), we usually characterize as the doubter, the one who holds out for tangible evidence of the bodily reality of Jesus, post-resurrection. Thomas is in direct contrast to Peter. Where Peter is impetuous, Thomas is deliberate. Where Peter blurts out whatever surfaces in his mind, Thomas is reticent. Peter is all in for what is in front of him, Thomas hangs back. Not easily fooled, he is fully committed once he is moved by love.
Does doubt corrode trust? It might, in certain circumstances. It might also be a clearing out of the underbrush of weak notions in preparation for the planting of the stronger oaks of faith.
Thomas speaks three times in the New Testament. Twice, he has questions about Jesus. The third time, he rallies the disciples to follow Jesus to Bethany. ‘Let us also go,” he says, “that we may die with him (John 11: 16).’”
Sometimes courage mounts the ramparts in defiance of incoming fire. Sometimes it forges alliances to stand up to tyrants. Sometimes it refuses to betray the principles of a nation in exchange for the passing praise of the corrupt and the powerful. And sometimes we see it in the set of a man’s shoulders and the lifting of the head: knowing the danger, counting the cost, he strides out anyway.
Thomas, R. S. “Circles.” In Collected Poems 1945-1990. London: Orion House, 1993, 245. ↩
Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics. Translated by Martin Ostwald. Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 1999, 69. ↩