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Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, ‘Lord, he whom you love is ill.’ But when Jesus heard it, he said, ‘This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.’ Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.
Then after this he said to the disciples, ‘Let us go to Judea again.’ The disciples said to him, ‘Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?’ Jesus answered, ‘Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.’ After saying this, he told them, ‘Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.’ The disciples said to him, ‘Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.’ Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. Then Jesus told them plainly, ‘Lazarus is dead. For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.’ Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow-disciples, ‘Let us also go, that we may die with him.’
When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. Martha said to Jesus, ‘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.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Your brother will rise again.’ Martha said to him, ‘I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.’ Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?’ She said to him, ‘Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.’
When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, ‘The Teacher is here and is calling for you.’ And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there. When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’ When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, ‘Where have you laid him?’ They said to him, ‘Lord, come and see.’ Jesus began to weep. So the Jews said, ‘See how he loved him!’ But some of them said, ‘Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?’
Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, ‘Take away the stone.’ Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, ‘Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead for four days.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?’ So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upwards and said, ‘Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.’ When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out!’ The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, ‘Unbind him, and let him go.’
Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.
Jesus began to weep.
The Victorians knew how to put on a ‘good’ funeral. Following the death of Prince Albert, on 14 December 1861, Queen Victoria gave us a whole new model for intense grief. For the next forty years she lived in perpetual mourning, and she insisted that those around her should adopt the same attitude.
When Victoria died, on 22 January 1901, the world mourned her passing and celebrated her longevity as a reigning monarch. The world also moved, for a brief time, into a new, more optimistic age. However, the world’s acquaintance with the tragedy of death would soon be renewed. International conflicts and a pandemic would set a new standard for widespread grief before the new century had really established itself. Unexpected and undeserved death stalked the world.
Another century has passed and not much seems to have changed. We continue to live through times of senseless conflict and bloodshed, times of pandemic, and times of death brought upon by the horrors of poverty and starvation. However, something has changed … our attitudes to death, the ways in which we mark death.
It is my duty and my privilege to journey with many people in the immediate aftermath of the death of a loved one. As I step out on that journey I am often told that the funeral should be a ‘happy’ occasion, a time of rejoicing and thanksgiving. It is not unusual for those wishing to attend the funeral to be issued with a dress code: ‘nothing black’, only ‘bright’ colours to be worn! Whilst I do not believe it is stated explicitly, there is also the implied instruction: ‘Absolutely no tears!’
The rituals that surround a funeral should definitely give thanks for the life that has come to an end, and there should be rejoicing that our loved ones are now at peace in God’s nearer presence. But … no tears?!
The Victorians set a standard for mourning that was excessive, particularly in the light of the average short life expectancy, due to a lack of what we would call ‘modern medical intervention’. We have learnt not to focus on the negative alone. We have discovered that it is also right that we should offer praise and thanksgiving. But … have we gone too far by insisting on no tears?!
In today’s reading we are given a glimpse of Jesus’ humanity. As he stood before the tomb of his friend Lazarus, and despite knowing the miracle that was about to occur, we are told that: Jesus began to weep. So, why do we seek to suppress our feelings of sorrow when we find ourselves in the same place?
Jesus gave us a message of unconditional and unwavering love. When that bond of love is broken through death it is appropriate that we should, like Jesus, begin to weep. But, like Jesus, we should not remain in that dark place for ever; we should not bring our own lives to a grinding halt because a loved one has died. Rather, we should, after the tears, rejoice and give thanks for the hope and irrepressible joy of the resurrection.
In today’s reading we are given a foretaste of Christ’s victory over the grave. Today we can see the hope that lies at the heart of the Good News of Jesus Christ. So, whenever and why-ever the tears may flow, let us remember that Jesus himself began to weep, and then let us give thanks for and celebrate the eternal victory that lies before us.