Sunday, March 29, 2020

untie him and let him go

"I am the resurrection and the life."

Today's Gospel at Mass relates the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead, and it's full of meaning for us today.  

Quick recap for anyone who needs it (John 11:1-45 if you'd like to read in its entirety): 

When Lazarus took ill, his sisters - Martha and Mary - sent word to Jesus of their brother's grave condition. Clearly, he was a close friend of the three siblings, as the message they send is: "Master, the one you love is ill."

Yet Jesus delays his return to Judea by two days, knowing Lazarus will be dead by the time he arrives. 

When he does return, Martha goes out to meet him: "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died." "I am the resurrection and the life," he tells her.
Mary has stayed at home - perhaps utterly overtaken by grief, perhaps even a little angry (or maybe even a lot angry) with Jesus for not returning sooner. When Martha returns to the house and then takes her to Jesus, she also says, "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died." 

If you prayed with this Gospel as one might in the practice of 
lectio divina, you might imagine the scene at Lazarus' tomb - all the people weeping, even Jesus himself. I imagine that Jesus weeps not only because he loves Lazarus and his sisters, but also because he is saddened by everyone else's grief. I even let myself wonder a little, if in his humanity, Jesus perhaps briefly wondered at his decision to delay his return to Bethany. Even knowing he was about to raise Lazarus from the dead, if he wondered, in his great compassion, if he should have returned to heal Lazarus on his sickbed, and spared his friends and their community this grief. 

The stone is rolled away, and Jesus speaks those powerful words: "Lazarus, come out!"
Lazarus emerges from the tomb, bound in burial cloths, and Jesus tells those gathered, "Untie him, and let him go."

One of the questions that naturally flows from this reading today, is, where is God in a pandemic?

Over the last few weeks, I'm sure we've all heard various takes on why this is happening, and various answers to questions about where God is right now and exactly what he is doing. 

I do not claim to know the mind of God, but I believe God is with us right now... In every single person. The people you're at home with; the person you wave to from across the street on your evening walk; the medical professionals risking their lives; the grocery store workers trying desperately to keep shelves stocked; God is even with us in the toilet paper hoarders and panic buyers. And yes, God is even in you.

The presence, the spark, of the Divine, is difficult to recognize sometimes, but that does not make it any less real; it only means that we do not perceive it perfectly.

Some might say that God is, as Jesus was at the beginning of today's Gospel, remaining "in the place where he was" - distant - perhaps choosing to remain distant in order to teach us some kind of lesson. Clearly, there is plenty all of us can learn from these times. However, I have a hard time with the suggestion that sometimes follows, that God is inflicting this scourge upon the human race with intent. That seems hollow to me, particularly when people are losing loved ones to a terrible disease. I certainly wouldn't want to tell someone who lost a beloved friend or relative to COVID-19, "Well, God is purifying us through this pandemic, so don't worry, they didn't die in vain. The world will be better for this."

Ouch. To me, that makes God sound like a cosmic jerk. 

Could it be that God is willingly inflicting this pandemic upon humanity? Well, sure. We could also ask, is God capable of suspending the laws of science to miraculously end this pandemic? Yes, certainly. But I don't think that's the point, in either case.  

I think the more important point is that none of us know the mind of God - that's something, particularly in times like these, I wish some of us would be perhaps a bit more thoughtful and honest about. We don't know the mind of God. We can't. That's for God alone. Not us. We can, and do, project what we think God is thinking or meaning in all of this - and we really do like to! - I think because it allows us the illusion of some measure of control.

It can be difficult to sit before God in silence and admit that we do not understand, and ultimately that we do not need to understand - to admit, to embrace the inherent mystery. Again, just as we cannot perfectly perceive the Divine presence, so also we cannot claim to know God's thoughts. 

It is true that times like these present us with opportunities - opportunities to consider our lives and loves more deeply, to appreciate things we once took for granted, to consider our relationships with one another and our relationship with God, through a new lens, and to grow in those relationships in new ways. For those who believe, even for those whose faith-lives are shaky, times like these are certainly an opportunity for us to lean on God - even when we're also confronted with a barrage of different emotions, as perhaps Mary was angry with Jesus, but still believed in him. 

And I do think that, just as he wept with Mary and Martha and their community before raising Lazarus, Jesus weeps with us now:
As we mourn the dead. 
As we mourn the loss of our normal lives (because even "normal" on the other side of this will not be the normal we knew three months ago). As we mourn an extended pause of things we hold dear, and even simple things we just liked to enjoy at leisure.

And I believe he will raise us, just as he raised Lazarus - resurrection always follows death of any kind. With resurrection comes new freedom - "untie him, and let him go". In this sense, we see resurrection as a kind of release from captivity... making this time of hardship an opportunity for us to come to terms with the things that are binding us, the things that are holding us back from living in greater service to one another and to God. Maybe that's something worth considering more deeply.

After this time of "captivity" is ended, what might your resurrection look like? For what will you be untied? What will you be freed to do?

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