For much of our lives we wander in a hazy routine of daily tasks and comfortable relationships. But when tragedy breaks into our lives, even the most orderly among us can’t prevail against its chaos. We see this in the reaction of Martha, so familiar as the woman too busy with her domestic tasks to listen to Jesus teaching. She meets Jesus alone on the road, her household chores forgotten, and simply says, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would never have died.”
She challenges him out of her pain. Intense grief calls forth the deepest questions of our faith. Instead of closing herself off and becoming bitter, Martha allows her pain to open her to Jesus’ challenge to believe. In turn, strengthened by this risk, Jesus accepts her challenge.
Mary, too, can be present to Jesus only in the depths of her grief and suffering. Gone is the time of leisure when she would sit quietly at his feet while he talked of the kingdom. Mary challenges him with the wordless power of her tears and stirs him to compassion. This, perhaps more than anything else, reveals the source of his power and strength.
The love poured out in this scene at Bethany will be exceeded only in the love poured out in the blood from the cross. Only great love can challenge the darkness of death itself.
Like Mary and Martha, we have to be able to see through and beyond the intensity of our pain, challenging even God himself with utter belief in his statement, “I have promised and I will do it.” Like Jesus we have to use all the strength that compassionate love gives us to call those around us to a newer and fuller life. But perhaps most of all, like Lazarus, we ourselves need to be challenged to rise from our sleep of routine and complacency.
Death always startles us with its suddenness, its finality. Even when a loved one has been sick for a long time and death comes as a release and relief for both the one suffering and those left behind, the initial reaction is one of shock and dismay. In cases of sudden, tragic, accidental death, this reaction is magnified. We who believe in the resurrection are no less likely to experience this very human reaction. We resonate with Mary’s response to Jesus about her belief in the resurrection at the end of time. Our minds and our faith tell us one thing, our hearts and our bodies often balk at the appearance of separation and loss that for a time is all too real and unavoidable.
Like so much of our spiritual lives, we have to learn to live with this paradox. We see it differently at different times in our life. When we’re young, death is an infrequent and scary interruption of life. When we’re old, we sometimes feel like we’ve seen too much death over the course of a long life and it seem almost unbearable in its familiarity.
We might envy Mary and Martha in their experience of their brother being restored to life. The Gospels don’t tell us what happened afterward, because the far greater event of Jesus’ resurrection now takes center stage. And there’s no more need for envy, because what Jesus experienced, we will all experience. This is the promise that’s at the heart of our faith. It’s what allows us to celebrate our loved ones even in their passing, because we know that life, not death, is the final reality.