Summary: in the midst of the pandemic, what does the raising of Lazarus mean
Good morning to you, wherever you are.
You have just heard our long, well-known and beautiful Gospel reading from John about Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. Hold that story in you mind as I read you today’s poem by Padraig O’ Tuama, an Irish poet and theologian, entitled “Staring Match”, because I want to suggest a lesson in both that is particularly timely as we deal with this strange disruption in our lives brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic of today.
I stare at the icon the sacrament and the sacred story.
I stare at the window the bread and the familiar words.
With only myself to blame I repeat the questions that restrain me:
What is all this for? and:
What will all this bring? and:
What should I do now?
And then there’s that great silence that greets me.
So I try to greet it with a liturgy for the morning
a little vitamin, hoping that
opening the day with rhythm might calm the encounter with the selves I ignore.
Might help a life be lived more generously.
Might help the eye see inside the icon.
Might help the story sound. Might help the bread be found by the place that’s hungry.
For both the poem and biblical story we must surely ask ourselves:
“What does it all mean?”
What is the mystical and prophetic Gospel of John telling us with this amazing story of a dead man brought back to life by Jesus?
And what is O’ Tuama trying to explain with this ‘Staring Match’ – a sort of stand-off between the nagging longing of our souls for meaning and solace as we busy ourselves in our daily routines, and the rather veiled rituals and symbols we have created over the years to try to explain and assuage these longings.
“What does it mean?”
“What is it for?”
And in modern pop phraseology:
“What’s it all about, Alfie?”
At least for me, the core truth in this long reading lies in the 25-26th verses:
Jesus said to her, "I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die."
There are numerous indications that the Lazarus story is a parable – it is the only occurrence in all of the gospels of this amazing story, and the only mention of Mary & Martha, well-known friends of Jesus, of having a brother. Jesus visited Mary and Martha often, and they appear in all the other gospels, but NEVER is a brother mentioned. Surely, if Jesus had raised a real person, who had been dead for 4 days to life again – and in front of a crowd of people made of synagogue Jews who saw Jesus as a threat – such an event surely would have appeared in every gospel.
So for this and other reasons, this story is surely meant to bring home to all that the way of Jesus is the way to eternal life – to follow the Christ is to never die! And if we can accept that meaning of this story, it is ‘good news’ indeed.
Our work is to ask:
“What does it mean for me?”
How shall I shape my life in light of this ‘good news’? It seems to me that O’ Tuama’s poem catches that moment we all surely feel: amidst the brushing of teeth, the making of coffee, opening the mail, putting on the socks –
“What is this life for?”
“What is MY life for?”
How do the bread and wine, the water and liturgy, the creeds and confessions, the Bible stories and theologies – how do they help ME make meaning of it all?
And now here we are – caught in the middle of a ‘war with an invisible enemy’; all our technology and riches have now been ground to a halt by a sub-microscopic villain. We do not understand, we cannot control it, and we know how ‘to fight the fight’ only by isolating ourselves from one another! And it is the same for all, world-wide – young and old, rich and poor, wise and foolish – it is, in fact, a ‘Great Leveler’ with power to harm and to kill, regardless of where or who we are!
“What is all this for?”
“What will all this bring?”
“What should I do now?”
“WHAT DOES IT MEAN?”
There are many possible answers which we will discuss for decades to come, but we can hope it brings an understanding that (as a banner on medical supplies to Ohio from China said) ‘we are truly all in this together’ – Arab and Jew, Christian and Muslim, the one percent and the homeless beggar, black, brown, yellow, white – we are on this same planet together. Not just one nation under God, but one humanity under our Creator, and we will survive only if we love and care for one another.