Welcome back to this Lent series, based on my book Jesus said, I Am – finding life in the everyday.
We come to this chapter at an extraordinary time, the time of coronavirus, when so many are praying anxiously, concerned for their loved ones, maybe separated from their loved ones. This chapter, dealing with the death and rising of Lazarus, may reveal new treasures for us at this time. As many of us have stepped back from our spiritual communities, I hope our reading and praying together helps. We are evolving and strengthening other ways of being community.
As we walk through John’s gospel, getting closer to Easter, and the cross, we see the days grow longer. There is an inbuilt hope in this season of spring.
John 11- 12:8
Let us return to the gospel story. As we follow it through, it is worth being on the watch for the flowering of the themes sown in the prologue, at the very beginning, where John talks of light and life, the light that shines in the darkness and the darkness not overcoming it. We see in this story of Lazarus the beauty of that light and life breaking through, and also the power and depth of the darkness. If we are alert, we will also see the other great themes of the gospel: seeing the glory, grace and truth of God in the life of Jesus, and an invitation to belief. All these things open and flourish in the account of Lazarus, Martha and Mary.
This is an extraordinary and profound passage of Gospel, so rich and deep. We’ll just look at a few aspects of it here on the blog – aspects that I hope will give some nourishment, or encouragement, or consolation – and also ways of living it out, living in the light of this bursting out of life and hope in a place as dark as the grave. No details are wasted with John, and the slow introduction to this story has lessons for us too.
Messages and prayers
While he is by the Jordan, a desperate message arrives saying that Lazarus, his [Jesus’] beloved friend, is very sick. And he does not respond. For all of us who have prayed for healing for someone we love, or for the resolution of some terrible situation, we send our messages to God, and then, sometimes, nothing happens. This experience of silence is one all of us who have prayed encounter.
And yet, and yet, we pray……
When I don’t know how to pray, I ask God to accompany me, to be with me and to be with the one I am praying for. I find myself expanding my prayer – for others I know in similar circumstances, and then for those I don’t know. I pray for the support that is there, or that it may be there. I ask if there are things I can do to be part of the solution. That is what, in practice, I do. Even when I don’t know how to pray, or why I am praying, I find that I do.
The death and raising of Lazarus, this journey to the grave and into life, foreshadows the Easter story in all its brightness and strangeness. Also, in a very real and practical sense, the raising of Lazarus precipitates Jesus’ arrest and all that follows.
So, while Jesus was waiting, was he coming to terms with what was going to happen and seeking the Father? John’s gospel is very full of the bond between the Father and the Son.
Prayer is nothing less than oneing the soul to God. Julian of Norwich
Prayer propels him into action, as it does now. …. We are not dealing here with a Saviour who is indifferent to the suffering of the world, but who is preparing to enter into it more fully than we can imagine.
And, we know, that Jesus does come, and the two sisters speak to him in their fresh raw grief.
I wrote a sequence of poems about this Mary, and the second one speaks of that moment. You can read it here.
Lazarus needed to be released from the grave-clothes, but maybe there were other kinds of letting go he needed now.
This story shows us the hard journey into new life Lazarus and his sisters went through, and the possibility, and power, of resurrection.
What would it mean to be a resurrection people – to participate with Jesus in making things new, to be part of the new heavens and new earth, to pray and work for his kingdom to come now, on earth, as it is in heaven? Is it possible to go deeper than believing in resurrection, to begin to practise it, to live as if it were the way things were meant to be? In any experience of darkness, perhaps we can take courage from this story to enter into it, to not be afraid, to know there is a way out on the other side. Even in darkness, we can look for signs of life.
The line ‘Practice resurrection’ [is]from the poetry of Wendell Berry.
You can see a performance of Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front
by Wendell Berry following the link.
I wonder how much of a manifesto it might be for these strange times, and our hopes for the times to come. (A link to my previous post, a Poem for a time of isolation)
Once Lazarus is restored to them, they throw a party to celebrate this resurrection power, and to thank Jesus for their brother and their friend.
One thing resurrection means, in this story of Lazaus, is an extravagant feast and an extravagant anointing…..
Now, this is a ‘Jesus’ uprising – of feasting, a celebration of an empty grave. The feast, the open house, is an image of the kingdom we have come across elsewhere in the gospels, in Jesus’ parables of wedding feasts and banquets, of the hospitality of the Father’s house.
As the feasting continues, Mary enters. In an extravagant act of thanksgiving, a prophetic act too, she pours out precious perfume and anoints Jesus’ feet. She unbinds her hair, an undressing, a vulnerability, as she gives the most precious gift the house can offer – a jar of nard. This act of kneeling has its later echo: as Jesus kneels to wash his disciples’ feet. I wonder whether Jesus was remembering this act of Mary’s when he knelt before his friends.
Maybe, for those of us who are missing Mothers day, or birthday parties, or even their own weddings, because of coronavirus isolation, we can think and begin to plan the kind of joyful gatherings we’ll have, the kind of reuniting with loved ones, when this situation has passed.
This feast as recorded by John, and this kneeling, is the subject of the final of my poems for Mary. You can read that here.
Reflection and response.
You will need: a dry twig and a vase or jar, paper cut into leaves, green pencils or felt-tip pens, cotton.
Music suggestion: Hildegard von Bingen (perhaps Antiphon, Caritas Habundant in Omnia
Think of people and situations in need of new life – of healing and restoration and new beginnings. Write them down on the leaves, colouring them in with green. Ask for the Spirit of life to be given them. Tie them to the dry twig, giving thanks for new life.
Is there something you could do to support or cheer a sick person, or someone caring for a sick person? Or is there a seemingly dead situation that could be open to new life?
Alternatively, you can pick a budding twig to watch unfold, visiting it each day and praying as above, or cutting it and putting it by a light place in your home. Celebrate the hope of new life coming from something that looks as if it might well be dead.
There are many community groups, and individuals, who are gathering together – often virtually – to help and support those around them – cooking meals, arranging deliveries, making calls – showing love in a way which respects the increased personal boundaries we need at the moment. If you are feeling anxious, or helpless, in the face of the current situation, there may be something you can do to bring hope or help to someone else. You can be part of the movement to bring new life to dark places.
Ask God whether there are ways you could ‘practise resurrection’. God delights in using the flawed, the old and the cast aside, like Moses or Abraham….. Ask Jesus to bring his resurrection life into yours now, to breathe into the dead and dark places. Similarly, ask him to do the same for those you love and for your community.
Ask, too, where you could be part of this process of making all things new, bringing new life.
Start simply – renew an old, thrown-away object: restore a piece of furniture, reuse old fabric for a sewing project, plant vegetables in a neglected place, make compost, use broken plates for mosaic, make something beautiful out of what has been cast aside.
Please feel free to use any of this material that helps you, saying where it is from.