“I know this happiness is provisional: . . . but ineluctable this shimmering / of wind in the blue leaves.”1 — Denise Levertov
The shortest verse in the Bible and the favorite of middle-school children who are required to memorize a Bible verse. Why he wept can easily be conjectured: his friend Lazarus had died. An urgent summons had come, but Jesus dawdled, deliberately, it seems. He and the disciples were across the Jordan River, not far from where John had baptized Jesus. It was a prudent move: he had barely escaped a stoning outside the Temple for blasphemy. The crowds found him, hailed him as being everything John had said he was and more. “Many came to believe in him there.”2
When the messenger arrives, Jesus assures the disciples that “this sickness will not end in death; it has come for the glory of God.”3 So, although he loves Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, he holds on, he stays in place for two days. This is either a consummate folly or a breathtaking high-wire act of faith.
When the devil took Jesus, famished and weakened, to the pinnacle of the Temple, and invited him to fling himself out over the city because the angels would bear him to earth as lightly as a feather, Jesus retorted that God is not to be tested. This life is not a circus act. But now, knowing that Lazarus will surely die, Jesus waits. His time is coming. If he would not tempt Death for himself, he is willing to defy it for a friend. After two days, Jesus says to the disciples, Let’s go. Time to waken Lazarus from sleep. Ah, they say, he’ll be alright then. No, says Jesus, he’s dead. This will be good for your faith. Let’s go.
But the disciples remember how close death came to Jesus the last time he provoked the powers that be. If he goes back this soon, those who want him dead will definitely finish the job. “Are you going there again?” they ask incredulously. Anyone can walk in the daylight, argues Jesus. The real test is whether you can walk in the dark without stumbling.
There was darkness ahead, without question. And Thomas, patron saint of doubters everywhere, breaks the open-mouthed silence. “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”
Bethany is two miles from Jerusalem. They are there in less than an hour. “If you had been here,” says Martha sorrowfully, “my brother would not have died.”4 And some standing nearby wondered aloud why he could open the eyes of the blind but had done nothing to keep Lazarus from dying.
It is after Easter, but I am thinking about death. Not so much death as dying, the myriad of individual droplets of experience we call “life” spinning down into the whirlpool we call death. I am thinking of the violent, hallucinogenic dreams survivors of the coronavirus have endured. They were swept out in that riptide, far from shore; somehow, they find themselves once again emerging from the surf. I am wondering how they re-enter the life that has stuttered along in their absence. On their return from that hellish dreamscape, what will be most precious to them? How will they live with the gaps and absences in their timelines? These dislocations will change them—our friends, our neighbors, our families.
I stand pensively in the April afternoon sun, trying to memorize the tint around the back petals of the tulips in Brookside Gardens. I want to recall this moment years from now, when a scent or a certain cast of light brings it back. I want there to be a moment to bring back.
How strange it is to walk within a glorious spring day in Maryland, soft with yellow light and bright with flowers, while thousands of people fight for their lives—and thousands more risk their own lives for them. We have not seen such an indiscriminate killer in this country for years. It is “As if a man should flee from the face of a lion, and a bear should meet him: or enter into the house, and lean with his hand upon the wall, and a serpent should bite him.”5
We are in one of those social earthquakes that lay bare our fault lines, when the tectonic plates shift under our feet and upthrust the strata of neglect and callousness that future societies will judge us by. But we see, in addition to the sturdy bravery of our best—the nurses, respiratory therapists, doctors, and scientists—the quiet endurance of the grocery clerks and delivery people, postal and sanitation workers. The social divides and the rampant inequities are exposed; we see with new appreciation the people whose daily efforts define the normal we belatedly cherish.
Later, at home, I pick up a memoir by Joyce Carol Oates, A Widow’s Story.6 I am wary, for she writes prodigiously—not just in the number of her books, but through the style and mood and the enveloping weight of her words. Her eye omits nothing, even as she writes of her confusion in grief.
She writes of how her husband died in hospital a week after being admitted with pneumonia. He seemed to improve, so she left his bedside to catch a couple of hours of restless sleep at home. They called from the hospital deep in the night; they were urgent but cryptic.
She races to his room. A doctor tells her there was nothing they could do. She is in freefall. She is in a parallel universe. She sees herself across the room, a sobbing figure, crooked with grief. Who is this person? When she crosses the threshold of his room, she crosses an equator to a hemisphere she will never leave.
I wanted to experience through her how she brought these two halves of her life, marriage and widowhood, together. How did she see them; first with one eye closed and then with the other? Like every person suffering the death of a loved one, she learns while grieving.
It seems to me that Jesus learns this too, that his confidence on Wednesday ebbs into grief on Sunday. No matter how we prepare, the death of one we love is a gut-punch.
Jesus stands before the tomb and weeps for his friend, already four days dead. He weeps for all humans who die and are dying. And he weeps for himself, for his own dying, which he knows is up ahead. He has meditated on his coming death since Lucifer promised him he wouldn’t die. He knows it will be public, violent, and humiliating. Raising Lazarus will be the last straw. The machinery to kill Jesus will whir into action.
If Jesus raised Lazarus, why can’t he prevent the COVID-19 victims from dying? Wrong question.
Raising Lazarus is a sign of wonders to come. Jesus does it as a warning and a blessing. In John’s Gospel, Jesus heals, forgives sins, feeds thousands—all signs that we might believe that God sent him. The raising of Lazarus is a sign too, a sign that death will one day be vanquished. It is a test case, a finger pointing to the moon, a “first-fruits” as the Bible says.
Do you wonder what Lazarus was thinking when consciousness returned? As a dream fragments on waking, slipping through our fingers as light and sound envelop us, so he must have struggled at first in panic when he found himself bound in a winding-sheet. Then he is surrounded by faces—his sisters, Jesus, his neighbors and friends. He is confused, somewhat embarrassed, but he cannot prevent the upsurge of surprise and relief and then joy unabated. When our loved ones die, when we are dying, Lazarus is a living pledge of wonders still to come.
“This is the heart of this story: the essence of all things became part of existence—subject to change, decay, and death, just like us.”7 As much as the die is cast and his fate is sealed, Jesus sees beyond his own death. He bows his head and weeps again for relief, gratitude, love abounding.
“Here we discover the answer to perhaps the biggest question of all: why is there something rather than nothing? The answer is, because essence—or God, as we usually say—always intended to be our companion, to be with us . . . Jesus is the whole meaning and purpose for existence in the first place. Jesus is the reason we exist.”8
Agnostic as to the how, of the resurrection, I am all in for the why: it is God’s way of making sure we’ll be with him forever. And although my imagination bleeds out when I think about the afterlife, I’m going on record to say it will be a feast for the senses and a jolt to the mind. To say nothing of love and friendship. And when dying inevitably comes between us and this Narnia, God will see us through it with equanimity.
- Levertov, Denise. “Of Being,” in The Stream and the Sapphire: Selected Poems on Religious Themes, New York: New Directions, 1997, p. 5. ↩
- Jn. 10:42, NEB. ↩
- Jn. 11:4, NEB. ↩
- Jn. 11:21, NEB. ↩
- Amos 5:19, Douay-Rheims Bible. ↩
- Oates, Joyce Carol. A Widow’s Story: A Memoir. New York: The Ontario Review, 2011. ↩
- Wells, Samuel. Walk Humbly: Encouragements for Living, Working, and Being. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmanns Publishing, 2019, p. 49. ↩
- Wells, p. 49. ↩