Christ is in our midst! He is and ever shall be!
In the Name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
“Then Jesus said unto them plainly, ‘Lazarus is dead.’”
Over the years, observers of our culture have noted that we have become increasingly more open to publicizing and talking about things that once were deemed fit only for adult ears. It is all chalked up, so we’re told, to the reality our culture’s evolution, its development and maturation, that is, its finally coming of age. Some have likened this enlightenment to the casting off of the restraints foisted upon us by patriarchal powers and an antiquated and obsolete way of thinking and being and doing. This is the arrogance of modernism that sees little, if anything, good or valuable in the old, that somehow novelty is fresh and alive and up-to-date which trumps the tried and true of the years. We are reaping today the results of the wild oats sown back in the ‘60s with an unrivaled antinomianism running amok among us.
Nevertheless, it seems to me there are some good things about growing up and getting older. “When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child;” says the Apostle, “but when I became a man, I put away childish things” (1 Cr. 13:11). We are designed by the Almighty to grow and develop – to mature – because we are living beings. Our first parents in Paradise were created to grow up and into the likeness of God in Whose image they were blessed and created to be. They alone were created in the image of God and according to His likeness, unlike any other creature created by God. Thus, they were charged with the superior care of God’s creation as they matured and grew and fulfilled their duty of priesthood serving God in His holy Temple.
However, this evolutionary theory held to by our culture also has its negative sides as well. As already noted, this newfound sophistication of maturity tends to diminish the past or earlier stages as we were “finding ourselves”. This putting down includes the wisdom of the ages. I still believe there are some things meant only for the eyes and ears of adults and that it’s not necessarily a sign of sophistication to ignore such wisdom. However, I must confess that, in my youthful rebellion, I didn’t adhere to such thinking entirely. Sometimes age and aging is the better teacher.
There is also, part and parcel with this evolutionary thinking, the throwing off of God, of our need for God. Who needs God when science or medicine or technology or biology holds all the answers instead of being servants of the Almighty? Man determines for himself or herself or whatever pronoun de jour happens to be in play. If it’s all built into the genes and DNA, what can God do? If He does exist, He made me the way I am. So, it must be natural.
And yet, as open as we are – or think we are – as a culture, despite our advanced stage of sophistication, there are still things we find hard to talk about, maybe we’d sooner want to ignore until we have to “deal with it.” And one of those things is death and dying. Interestingly enough, we watch its gore on TV. It has become increasingly detailed over the years as though somehow the softer innuendos of the old war movies and Westerns and horror movies I used to watch as a kid gets lost on our more sophisticated minds. It seems we demand more detail. So, we detail every bloody bullet that flies, every bloody blow to the body, oftentimes in slow motion action to get the effect, almost as though death and dying are the more important scenes in our movies, almost as though without such attention to the detail we who are sophisticated wouldn’t get it any other way. The more grotesque the better the box office earnings, I suppose.
And yet, we find it hard to say, “I’m dying.” Try sitting down with loved ones to seriously discuss your living will or medical directives or your last will and testament. It’s a hard and uncomfortable conversation for so many. These same cultural observers have documented well our “denial of death.” Ernest Becker years ago wrote a book with such a title, “The Denial of Death.” It’s a good book, if you can still get a copy. And, of course, we have the real pioneer in all of this, Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, to thank for bringing our cultural discomfort to light in all of her works on death and dying. She conjectured that by removing death and dying from our homes where the dying used to reside up until they drew their last breath, and then were prepared for burial by their loved ones in the home where the wake was to be held, we have become unaccustomed to death and estranged from its reality (despite the movies and in-your-face 24 hour news reports). We are uncomfortable with its presence. In a day and age when we used to work through our grief by getting up front and personal with death, even to the digging of our deceased loved one’s grave, we have lost the ability to face death, or moreso, we have become stunted and delayed in our growth by farming out all those responsibilities to the professionals.
Kubler-Ross, along with others, has also observed how we prefer to use euphemisms regarding death instead of plainly speaking of death. We speak of her passing or passing away, of his going to a better place, of their going home to their reward, of having lost the battle, of having kicked the bucket. It is not that euphemisms are inherently wrong. It is that they can be used to avoid and hide and deny. It seems if we were to say that our loved one is dead when asked by another, it sounds almost harsh and insensitive, inconceivable to our ears. “How’s your mom doing? Mom died last night.” “Dad’s dead.” It sounds abrupt, so terrible and final.
So, Jesus has to speak plainly to His Disciples, “’Lazarus is dead.’” He had to make it clear. In fact, by the time He arrives at the home of His beloved friends, Lazarus is more than dead. He is four-days-dead, as he’s often called in our Tradition, and his body is putrefying. Lazarus is beyond help and the hope of recovery. And still, as we know as we come into these most holy days of the Great Passion, death – not our passing away or our going to a better place – but our death is not the final answer. “’This sickness is not unto death,’” says our Lord, “’but for the glory of God, that the Son of God might be glorified thereby.’” Jesus, Who is Lord of both the living and the dead (Rm. 14:9), knows well the reality of death. In the coming short days He will voluntarily face His own human mortality as God in the flesh. He will be killed. He will be buried. He will descend into the very depths of Hades and undergo its horrors. The sickness of sin and its consequence of death becomes, by the mercy and compassion and grace of Almighty God, the opportunity for redemption and for resurrection (Rm. 8:18-39). These realities are used by God for His glory, and the raising up of the four-days-dead Lazarus will lead to the glorification of the Son of God Who will be lifted up on the Cross as both High Priest and Offering for the sin of the world (Jn. 1:29; 6:51; 8:28; 12:32). It is His glory because, having endured death, He will be raised on the third day!
God is not afraid of death. He does not cower in its presence. He does not run away and hide and pretend it doesn’t exist. He enters into it. He enters into our world to take on our flesh and blood in order to take on death. God, remember, did not create death. Death is not part of the natural order of creation until after the Fall. Death is unnatural. Death is foreign to creation. Death is the plan and work of the devil who could not achieve it until he tempted our first parents into sinning, and by their sin introduce death into the world. For you see, God establishes limits for what the devil and his horde can do (Jb. 1:6-12; 2:1-6). The ancient Wisdom of Solomon tells why the devil wanted our death:
For God created man to be immortal, and made him to be an image of His own eternity. Nevertheless through envy of the devil came death into the world; and those who take hold of his side do find it (WS 2:23-24).
The devil envied our closeness to God and the glory God had bestowed on us! He could not endure what he could not have. Jesus came, however, to reverse the effects of our sin-sickness and to restore the natural order of creation, to give back to us what we sold to the devil for a pot of pottage (Gn. 25:29-34). He came to partake of death so that we might partake of true Life for which we were created. He came to restore us to our original glory and then elevate us through His Incarnation, Death, Resurrection, and Ascension. Jesus is “’the Resurrection and the Life. He that believeth in Me, though he were dead, yet shall he live; and whosoever liveth and believeth in Me shall never die.’” The glory of God is found in the raising of the dead. The glory of God is revealed in the death of His Son.
Death confronts us and we must call it what it is: death! Death will always confront us. It will always challenge us. It will always call into question the goodness and the power of God. “’Lord, if Thou hadst been here, my brother would not have died.’” “’Could not this Man, Who opened the eyes of the blind, also have kept this man from dying?’” It will call into question the meaning of life, especially if we’re suffering. It will call into question the purpose for our even having been born. What possible purpose could birth have except to suffer and die? A Job conundrum. So, when I’m tired of living, I’ll end it. If I feel I can’t go on, if I get mentally tired, I’ll arrange for my euthanasia (I’m sorry, we call it a “mercy killing,” a polite euphemism to speak of suicide). Death is the last enemy (1 Cr. 15:26; 2 Tm. 1:10; Rv. 20:14).
But, if we are willing, “Wisdom! Let us attend!” Do you hear off in the not-so-distant future the faint but increasing chorus of Pascha. “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing Life.” In the days ahead it’s what we will hear in the background of our Lord’s Great and Holy Passion. It is its leitmotif because, ultimately, that’s what this is all about. “’Lazarus, come forth!’” Pascha is coming.
Through the prayers of our holy Fathers, O Lord Jesus Christ our God, have mercy on us and save us. Amen.
Glory to Jesus Christ! Glory forever!