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Loving Grieving Consoling by John Shea




 John 4: 1-45


Now a certain one was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. It was Mary who anointed the Lord with ointment and wiped his feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was ill.


This introduction foreshadows some of the themes of the story. Lazarus of Bethany is first designated a “certain one” who is ill. This means his story is not his alone, but the story of all who become ill. Lazarus means “God helps” and Bethany means “the house of the afflicted.” Therefore, ultimately this is a story of how God helps those in the house of the afflicted – not just Lazarus but also his sisters Mary and Martha and, as it turns out, even some Jews from Jerusalem.


Mary is featured more prominently than her sister Martha. Although she will not actually anoint the Lord until later in the Gospel, she is designated as the one who has done this. Her anointing symbolically expressed the pouring out of Jesus’ life that would bring life to others, and her position at his feet means she is the servant-disciple of his revelation. The storyteller wants us to know that Mary learns from Jesus and understands who he is and what his death is meant to do. When she appears later in this story, she will be a catalyst for Jesus’ entry into the grief and death of his friends. This entry is what must happen for Jesus’ identity and mission as the resurrection and the life to be effective for believers.


So the sisters sent to him, saying, "Lord, he whom you love is ill." But when Jesus heard it, he said, "This illness is not unto death. It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified because of it."


Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So when he heard that he was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.


     The message of the sisters is not that “Lazarus is ill” but the one whom the Lord loves is ill. This establishes the tension of the story. It is not just a story of illness and death, but a story of the illness and death of someone whom the Lord loves. How will the love of God in Jesus respond to the illness and death of one whom God loves?


The purpose of this illness is not death. This illness and death will become a sign that shows forth the both the glory of God and the glorification of the Son of God. “Glory” is a difficult word. It usually implies a heightened sense of self-importance. To bestow glory is to raise someone beyond the ordinary and honor them in special ways. On this level, what is going to happen during the illness and death of Lazarus will focus human consciousness on God and God’s Son and elicit human worship.


However, there is another level. The glory of God is not self-referential. The glory of God is to give God’s own life to people. God’s own life holds people through the losses of death and brings them to life in the far reaches of God. God’s own life is communicated to people through the Son of God. In particular, when the Son of God enters the world of death, he brings God’s own life to that place of complete human failing. In this way, he is glorified because he brings God’s glory to the experience of illness and death and transforms it into an existence beyond loss. What is going to happen during Lazarus’s illness and death will be a sign of divine life sustaining human life through the disintegration of death.


The storyteller is compelled to tell us that Jesus loved everyone involved – Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. It is because of this love that he delays for two days. Of course, this seems strange. If he loved them, it would seem he would be anxious to be with them. And when he finally does arrive, Martha will imply he should have been there sooner. How is love expressed in delay?


In order for people to believe in the spiritual strength of love, it has to be manifested in the physical world. Lazarus must die, and God’s love in Jesus must bring him back to temporal life. Of course, as it is often remarked, Lazarus will die again. Although eternal life suffuses temporal becoming, it is not temporal becoming. But Lazarus’ resuscitation is a sign in the physical dimension that expresses a greater truth in the spiritual dimension. Comprehending this spiritual strength of love would console Martha and Mary. A hurried journey to Bethany to stop Lazarus from dying will not facilitate the spiritual realization of how love conquers death. The path of revelation demands the death of Lazarus.


Then after this, he said to the disciples, "Let us go into Judea again."


The disciples said to him, "Rabbi, the Jews were but now seeking to stone you, and you are going there again?"


Jesus answered, "Are there not twelve hours in the day? If anyone walks in the day, they do not stumble because they see the light of this world. But if they walk in the night, they stumble because the light is not in them."


He spoke these things.


After the two days, Jesus sets his face toward Judea - again. The disciples think this is dangerous given the fact the religious authorities in Judea just recently tried to stone Jesus. The last time was almost the last time. Why go again?


Jesus responds with an enigmatic maxim that speaks to his particular circumstances. The maxim works both practically and symbolically. They are always twelve hours to a day; and if someone is out and about during that time, they will not stumble for they will see (physically) by the light of this world (the sun). However, if they go out at night they will stumble because they have no light in themselves. By definition, there is no outer light at night. The only hope for not stumbling is inner light, but since they do not have this, they will stumble. This is a slightly odd rendition of not stumbling and stumbling, and it makes an obvious, if lapidary, point.


However, when these normal conditions are applied to Jesus, they take on a quite different meaning. As there are twelve hours in a day, there is a certain amount of daylight time to Jesus’ life. Daylight time is time when no harm will befall him. This time is fixed by God. So he does not have to worry about returning to Judea. His life is part of a divine plan and timetable. As John the Baptist attested, “No one can receive anything except what is given from heaven.” (Jn. 3:27) Things are not being controlled by Jesus’ decision or even by the plotting of the religious authorities. It is necessary to see a larger design; and since Jesus sees it, he is not fearful about Judea.


In this daylight time Jesus sees by the light of the world. But this does not mean sunshine guides him. Jesus is the light of the world. His inner illumination discloses the truth about human existence. He sees from the inside out, by his own interior radiance. This is why he does not stumble. Even when night comes and physical harm happens to him, he will not stumble (lose contact with God) because he has light inside himself.


Therefore, Jesus does not fear returning to Judea where they have just tried to stone him. God’s plan will unfold in God’s time. Even when that plan includes night, Jesus will not stumble because he will walk by the inner light. The disciples may think returning to Judea is poor judgment, but Jesus is guided by a larger vision. The storyteller underlines this profound yet enigmatic perspective of Jesus by simply stating, “He said these things.”


Then he said to them, "Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I go to awake him out of sleep."


The disciples said to him, "Lord if he has fallen asleep, he will recover." Jesus had spoken of his death, but they thought that he meant taking rest in sleep.


Then Jesus told them plainly, "Lazarus is dead. For your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him."


Thomas, called the twin, said to his fellow disciples, "Let us also go, that we may die with him."


     It is love that is driving Jesus to go to Judea. “No greater love does a person have than he lay down his life for his friends. (Jn. 15:13) Jesus goes to awaken Lazarus, a friend to Jesus and the disciples. The disciples are still fearful of the return to Judea, and they argue with Jesus that he doesn’t really need to go. If Lazarus is asleep, he will recover on his own. As usual, they cannot hear the symbolic language of Jesus. By saying Lazarus is asleep and will be awakened, Jesus is talking about non-finality of death.


This failure of the disciples to follow the symbolic language moves Jesus to blunt talk. He tells them directly that Lazarus is dead, and that he is glad that he was not there. If he was there, he might have prevented Lazarus from dying. This would have stopped what was needed. The death and resuscitation of Lazarus will be a sign that will bring his disciples to belief. Therefore, it is important they come with Jesus for what will happen with Lazarus will be for their benefit. Therefore, “let us go to him.”


Jesus has explained why he is not afraid to go to Judea and why his disciples should accompany him. Has he successfully persuaded them? Thomas is on board, and he encourages the others. He is loyal to Jesus. But has he understood him? It is Jesus’ death as the Son of God that will bring life. Thomas’ role is not to die but to receive life from the crucified one.


Now when Jesus came, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days.


Bethany was near Jerusalem, about two miles off, and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them concerning their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary sat in the house.


     Jesus does not arrive in the “nick of time.” His delay was successful. Lazarus is dead, four days in the tomb. This is important. If love is stronger than death, it must overcome death, not merely death like symptoms. The “four days in the tomb” establishes the first condition for the revelatory sign – a dead Lazarus. In the context of the whole Gospel, Lazarus’ death and resuscitation is made possible by Jesus entering into death with the power of God’s everlasting life and, through his own death, companioning the death of all his friends. Therefore, we are told  “Bethany was near Jerusalem,” the place of Jesus’ crucifixion.


Many of the Jews of Jerusalem had come to console Martha and Mary. Their consolation will consist in sharing the tears of the two sisters. Jesus will also share in those tears, but he will take consolation a step further. He will restore Lazarus to them. Some of the Jews will learn from this and believe in the resurrection and the life and others will be threatened and follow more fiercely the path of plotting Jesus’ death.


In the Gospel of Luke Martha and Mary represent action and contemplation. In that story action wants to take over contemplation, but Jesus does not allow it. Martha and Mary are sisters with distinct gifts, and they are meant to live together. In John’s Gospel Martha and Mary represent two levels of consciousness. Martha displays an open ended trust in Jesus and recites titular confessions that underline Jesus’ importance. However, Martha, by herself, may not fully understand all that she is saying. Mary represents a deeper consciousness, one that says less but understands more. Her comprehension is profound because she hears and responds to the voice of Jesus. Therefore, Martha and Mary may be held together as sisters in terms of a lesser and greater consciousness of who Jesus is and what he must do.


Martha said to Jesus, "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. And even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you."


Jesus said to her, "Your brother will rise."


Martha said to him, "I know that he will rise in the resurrection at the last day."


     Martha believes and trusts in Jesus. She thinks that if Jesus had arrived earlier, Lazarus would not have died. In her mind Jesus has the ear of God. Whatever he asks for, he gets. So if he was physically present before Lazarus’ death, he would have asked God to keep Lazarus alive and God would have acceded to this request. Jesus would have prolonged Lazarus’ earthly life. Even now, there may be something he can do. But it is not specified what that might be. Martha is an open ended believer.


However, these affirmations of Jesus stop short of fuller appreciations. Jesus is more than a healer, one who makes people well and delays their dying. Also, he is more than someone who has the ear of God. Later in the story, he will pray to God, but primarily for the benefit of other people in order to reveal to them a union with the Father that goes beyond getting prayers answered. What Martha knows is considerable, but it is not the full revelation.


Jesus’ simple response, “Your brother will rise,” means he has not come too late. He has come too late to stop Lazarus from physically dying, but he has not come too late to raise him from the death. Jesus has said that Lazarus’ death was to show God’s glory. This glory goes beyond healing people. It is shown most clearly by “raising them from the dead.” This spiritual truth will be manifested in the sign of Lazarus’ resuscitation.


Martha also knows about resurrection. It will happen on the last day. Once again, this knowledge may preclude her from seeing more deeply into the present and who is talking to her. Jesus tries to refocus for her what resurrection means.


Jesus said to her, "I am the resurrection and the life. The ones who believe in me, though they die, yet shall they live. Whoever lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?"


She said, "Yes, Lord. I have believed that you are the Christ, the Son of God, the one coming into the world."


Resurrection is not only a future happening. It is present in Jesus right now. Those who participate in the structure of his identity with the Father enter into eternal life. If they have physically died, they will continue to live in a transformed way. If they are living in this transformed way now, they will not spiritually die even when the physical body dies. Therefore, resurrection and life are what happens to those who are in union with Jesus. Martha knows that Jesus’ presence can delay death, that God always hears him, and that there will be a resurrection on the last day. But can she grasp this essential truth. What Jesus asks her is, “Do you believe this?”


Martha responds, “Yes,” and backs it up by restating what she has always believed. She recites titles that point to Jesus’ importance. It is almost as if she is “ticking off” accepted communal confessions of belief. Since Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, the One who is coming into the world, whatever he says is worthy of belief. This shows belief in the person of Jesus. It does not show understanding of the content of what has just been revealed. In fact, it avoids the question by honoring the person.


When she had said this, she went and called her sister Mary, saying secretly, "The Teacher is here and calling for you."


When she heard it, she rose quickly and went to him. Now Jesus had not yet come into the village, but was still in the place where Martha had met him.


Martha has said what she knows; she has gone as far as she can. To go more deeply into Jesus’ revelation of himself as the resurrection and the life and what resurrection and life means, a deeper level of consciousness will have to be called forth. Martha hands over the conversation to Mary. The transition is secret, not available to others, because it occurs in the hidden depths of the believer, symbolized by Mary sitting in contemplation. The reason for Martha calling Mary is that the teaching of Jesus about resurrection and life calls for this level of appreciation. Whenever Jesus calls someone, it is for the purpose of participating in the fullness of his life. Martha went out to meet Jesus on her own, Mary is called by name, the way a good shepherd calls his sheep.


Mary responds immediately and with energy. When she hears, she rises, and follows the lead of the voice. She goes to him in the very place where Martha had met him. She will take up where Martha left off.


When the Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary rise quickly and go out, they followed her, supposing that she was going to the tomb to weep there. Then Mary, when she came where Jesus was and saw him, fell at his feet, saying to him, "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died."


The Jews, among whom there will be believers and unbelievers, follow Mary. Their style of consolation is to join in the grief and weep with the close relatives of the deceased. Sharing their grief means following the trail of their tears. When the loved ones who are left behind are filled with loss, they may run to the tomb to get as close to the dead body as possible. At the tomb the weeping can become intense and overwhelming. At the sight of the rock that seals the tomb the sense of separation is permanent and unbearable. Going to the tomb symbolizes entering more deeply into the power of death and weeping more deeply over the power of this negative lord.


But Mary is going to Jesus. The lure of his voice is more powerful than the pull of the tomb. When she sees Jesus, it is more than a physical sighting. She sees into him and grasps him in his essence, his life-giving relationship to the Father. With this realization she falls at his feet. This position is one of both worship and discipleship. She knows that he, in himself, is the presence of God and she is open to learning what he will teach her. It is not what she knows, it is what she has heard from him. Since she is taking up where Martha left off, the teaching she has heard concerns Jesus’ identity as the resurrection and the life and what this means for those who believe in him. The question put to Martha has been passed on to Mary. “Do you believe this?”


Mary responds with the same words that Martha used to greet Jesus. But on Mary’s level of consciousness the meaning is considerably different. The truth of spiritual statements is located in the consciousness of the one saying them. “Lord, if you…” points to what Jesus said he was, the resurrection and the life. “Had been here” means in this place of death and grief. “My brother” is the one whom the storyteller has emphasized that Jesus loves. “Would not have died” means that he would not have lost contact with the living God whom Jesus mediates. Mary’s words are not a complaint or the expression of a faith that has been disappointed. Instead, they express the truth of Jesus’ own death, a truth expressed in the anointing with oil and wiping of Jesus’ feet with her hair.


Unless the “I am the resurrection and the life” enters into the realm of grief and death, those who die will lose touch with the God’s love. Their physical death also becomes their spiritual death. Only if Jesus is present to his friends, the one he lays down his life for, will they be sustained through the destruction of the body. Mary’s recognition of this truth is what Jesus needs to galvanize him into action. From here on in, he will be establishing the second half of the sign that manifests God’s glory and glorifies God’s Son. God’s Son will be glorified because he will bring divine love into a place where it was not. God will be glorified because this love will sustain those who open to it beyond the loss of the physical world. However, this spiritual communion needs a sign in the physical world in order to move people toward believing. The resuscitation of Lazarus will be the sign.


When Jesus saw her weeping and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. He said, "Where have you laid him?"


They said to him, "Lord, come and see."


Jesus wept.


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?"


So Jesus is about to enter the place of grief and death so he can bring God’s life to this lifeless situation. First, he enters the world of grief. But he does not enter without cost. This world is not banished by a transcendent word. This world has to be inhabited. Seeing the weeping of Mary and the Jews, he begins the movement of divine consolation and compassion. He is troubled, even angered, at the anguish that death has caused. He wants to know where they have laid Lazarus, so he can raise him.


So they invite the Messiah, the Son of God, the One who is coming into the world into the human world of grief, death, and separation. They invite him as Lord, but he enters as the Son of Mary. He totally joins them in their tears for the only way beyond death and grief is through it. And in two words, the full truth of incarnation is revealed. Jesus wept.


Some of the Jews saw the meaning of these tears. God’s love in Jesus responds to all that threatens and terrorizes humans. The path of this response is compassionate sharing and the eventual transformation of grief and death. But others do not see this deeply. They want a miracle that forestalls death. They do not understand that opening the eyes of the blind man was not a one time miracle on the physical level. It was an awakening to the spiritual truth of God in Jesus. If they had the eyes that Jesus gives to the blind, they would know these were the tears of love just as the clay Jesus made for the blind man was the clay of love.


Then Jesus, deeply moved, came to the tomb. It was a cave and a stone lay upon it.


Jesus said, "Take away the stone."


It is Jesus’ deep emotional response to the separating powers of death that moves him to the tomb. But he comes to it with a purpose. The stone separates the dead from the living and blocks people who love one another from communicating with each other. Therefore, it must go for Jesus is about to talk to his friend whom he loves.


Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, "Lord, by this time there will be an odor, for he has been dead 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. Jesus lifted up his eyes and said, "Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I know that you hear me always, but I have said this on account of the people standing by, that they may believe that you sent me."


Martha, who is characterized as the sister of the dead man, speaks the truth about death. The fate of bodies is decay and stench. She think that this reason enough not to open the tomb. But from Jesus’ point of view it is the reason to open the tomb for it is the precondition for the glory of God to be seen. In their previous conversation Martha hoped Jesus would stop Lazarus from dying. Instead, Jesus said Lazarus would rise. Only this would show the glory of God, a loving care stronger than the ravages of death.


Moreover, Martha, along with the people standing by, will overhear Jesus praying. Martha thought Jesus could ask anything of God and God would hear him. She is right. But Jesus and the Father are so interwoven they make a single reality. So it is not like he asks the Father, and then the Father considers it and says yes. Rather, since Jesus only does what he hears from the Father, what he asks of the Father is what he has already heard. Therefore, the point of his praying is so that people may realize he comes from God and trace what he is doing to God’s love.


When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, "Lazarus, come forth."


The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with bandages, and his face wrapped with a cloth.


Jesus said to them, "Unbind him, and let him go."


It is now time to enter into Lazarus’ death and he does so with voice that befits his identity as the Word. He is calling Lazarus in a loud voice. A loud voice symbolizes the presence of God. His voice penetrates into the open cave and reaches the ears of the dead. Lazarus comes out of darkness into light.


Death is imaged as an imprisoning reality, blocking the hands, nose, eyes, mouth, and ears of people. The feet are also bound so that people cannot walk. Jesus’ command is to reverse this condition. God’s glory is to free people and let them go. As Moses told Pharaoh centuries earlier, God’s command is, “Let my people go!” Only now, it is spoken to death by the one who calls himself “the resurrection and the life.”



Loving, Grieving, Consoling


It was a full five years after my father’ death.


I was driving across Alligator Alley in Southern Florida, traveling from Naples on the west coast to Boca Raton on the east coast. I was going to my parents’ condominium which my mother was going to sell the next day.


As I drove, I began to think of my father. Suddenly, I began to cry and I could not stop. I cried so effusively and unrelentingly that I had to stop at a rest station and change my shirt.


When I resumed driving, I thought it was over. Only it started again, and I was powerless in its grip. When I arrived at my mother’s condo, I had to change my shirt a second time.


I told my mother what happened. She simply said, “Oh, you’ll have days like that.”


Grief is a wild ride. People may map its faces, predict its stages, and schedule its duration. But those are people who, for the moment, are not in grief. They have the luxury of observation. But when the loss of a loved one inhabits your soul, you are an occupied territory. Resistance is futile.


That is why I like this emotionally troubled, weeping Jesus being swept toward the tomb of the one he loves. It is his love that is causing him the grief, just as it is the love of Martha and Mary that is causing them their grief. If Jesus had not loved Lazarus and his sisters, he would have been unmoved, philosophically interested at best. We are all eager for love. But as a distraught young widow once said to me, “Someone should have told me that all marriages end either in divorce or death.” The truth of eternally grounded people trafficking in time is: the deeper the love, the deeper the grief.


This is a truth we seldom think about when we give our heart away. In the temporary, perishing world we all inhabit, the advent of love is the seed of grief. Gabriel Marcel said, “To love someone is to say, ‘Thou, thou shalt not die.” Even if we don’t say it out loud, even if we only whisper it in the cellar of the heart, love readies us for weeping. Our first kiss and our first tear are linked.


However, this same love that causes our grief can console us. But we must trust the love and follow it to its root. We must not see it as a futile rebellion against mortality, but as a hint that there is more, more than meets the eye and more than conventional knowledge will admit. This love that makes us accompany the ill and even visit their graves may be showing us something of God’s love. Our reluctance to let people go may touch upon the truth of Lazarus’ resuscitation. The love that troubles Jesus and makes him weep at the loss of Lazarus also makes him go after Lazarus and free him from the imprisonment of death. The love of God in Jesus will not let Lazarus go, and so death has to release him. The love that causes our grief is, at root, the love that consoles our grief.


Consolation ultimately comes from realizing love is stronger than death. This is not an easy realization to embrace. As Martha knew, the stench of death is strong. Sometimes our minds focus on the unyielding fact of physical death and we speculate about how some form of continued existence is possible. However, the story suggests another way to proceed.


Jesus is the “resurrection and the life,” and those who can enter into him can participate in eternal life now. In this relationship with Jesus we find the love of God that sustains and raises people as an intimate presence at the center of our own identity. The more we contemplate this presence (Mary) and integrate it into our lives (Martha), the more we realize its gentleness is an enduring strength. Sustained by this presence, we can grieve greatly the physical loss of our friends and hope greatly for their continued life in God. Love generates both grief and consolation. As St. Paul said, “Do not grieve as those who have no hope.” I assume he meant we should grieve as those who have hope. It is the weeping Jesus who cries out, “Lazarus, come forth!”


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