In today's Gospel, Martha, sister of Lazarus, does something that therapists and counselors tell us is very important. It is to say what has been unspoken until now. In our families and work, it is often the truth that no one else will speak. In Martha's case, it is to speak the truth of the matter; Lazarus has been dead 4 days and the body is decomposing.
In "the Last Temptation of Christ", author Nikos Kazantakis develops this idea in his story. His Lazarus is risen, four days dead, with decaying flesh and an aversion to light. Villagers come to question him on what he saw in Hades, but he is too weak to satisfy their curiosity. Lazarus eventually heals, flesh becoming whole once again, after the careful ministrations of his sisters and mother. After the first time I read "the Last Temptation', I decided it would be good Lenten reading every year. Alas, other things got in the way, but I have taken the time to reread the book again this year and am once again awed by Kazantakis portrayal of a Jesus who is at once fully human and fully divine. Lest anyone think that life as fully human and fully divine was a piece of cake, the author makes it very clear that the complete range of human emotions and desires combined with an overwhelming presence of Godde was a daily struggle.
As an aside, Kazantakis' book got him promptly excommunicated from the Greek Orthodox Church. The book was written in Greek and took some years to be translated, creating another storm once it hit English. The Eastern Orthodox Church tends to emphasize the divine nature of Jesus, and the novel caused a scandal. But is a portrait of what is meant by saying "What if Godde was one of us".
The messy details of the story, illustrated by Martha, can be a lesson, of course. Godde can restart the spark of life even in those who have been truly lost to death. But it is also an opportunity to get lost in details that may cause us to miss some of the forest while examining the trees. I'd like to look at this story from a much greater distance; backing up to consider its figurative meanings.
Our main character is Jesus, Emanuel, who is "Godde with us". Not Godde transcendent, but right here, in the flesh, bringing a message of Godde's presence among the people. Our main character enters the story in a belated fashion, if you are to believe the other players. Lazarus, whom he might have saved, is dead. His friends, Mary and Martha, believe that hope disappeared when Lazarus breathed his last and was consigned to the tomb. If only Godde-with-us had been there at exactly the right time. Timing is everything, right ?
We have all experienced the loss of hope. Perhaps it was with an illness, an addiction, depression, grief beyond imagining. Sometimes it was for ourselves, but more often for another. Lives that are precious to us that we cannot change, heal or direct. When we are powerless, we lose hope.
We have also seen what happens when someone is consigned to the tomb. It is so final. It is the end of our influence in the situation. We say "they are in the hands of Godde, now" – as if they may have better off in our care. But this is where Godde-with-us is forgotten. We do hand our loved ones off to Godde, although sometimes we wait until death to do that. But Godde-with-us is standing with us, an arm about our shoulder as we recognize our powerlessness and give power over to Godde.
As the psalmist says "Where can we go from your Spirit ? Where can we flee from your presence ? If we climb up into heaven, you are there. If we make the grave our bed, you are there also."
Godde is so present, that we can be called from our tombs. And of course, many of our tombs are symbolic. Tombs of despair, sepulchers of illness and addiction. And they feel like bottomless pits, where death might be a welcome relief. There are observers as well, like Martha, some who care deeply, who say "she is dead…..let well enough alone". Even then, Godde-with -us can call us from our grave, when those attending us have given up, and more importantly when we have given up on ourselves.
For Lazarus, who was just plain dead, the voice was a familiar one. Jesus was his friend. The voice of Godde-with-us may not sound like what we think Jesus would sound like. It may be the voice of our child, our spouse, a friend, part of a song, a few words heard in our ears in a voice unknown. But the voice of Emanuel, with us and present always, can call us out of darkness. The coaxing or commanding voice can break into our tomb of despair, perhaps even into the tomb where we have become a bit comfortable, and call us to come out.
I have a dear friend with a history of anxiety disorders. She told me recently that when was much younger, she attempted suicide and very nearly succeeded. But as she was outside her body, watching the efforts of nurses and physicians, she was asked to return. She asked, in response, what she would have to do to live well. The answer came – just show up. She is once again, many years later, battling crippling anxiety. And she relates that the answer stays with her – just show up. When she wonders if Godde is present in all this, and can't focus on the ways that Godde has attended her in the present crisis, she calls to memory that episode from her teens. For Godde to be present to us, all we have to do is show up. After all, Godde has.