It has been helpful these past few weeks to have the Gospel lessons read like we read the Passion Story. They have been long readings containing lengthy dialogue between multiple characters. Hearing a distinctive voice for each person helps us to make sense of all that unfolds, of all that is said. In today’s reading we hear the voices of Jesus, the disciples, Thomas, Martha, Mary, and their friends. Did you pick up on something about this list? Of all the people in the reading, only one person says nothing at all; only one character has no lines in the drama. Do you know who it is?
Lazarus! First in sickness, then in death, and finally even in life, he is shrouded in silence. John’s Gospel gives us great insight into what Jesus is thinking and feeling. We learn quite clearly what the sisters think and feel and we know much about their grieving friends. We know the doubts, questions, and concerns of the disciples. But we know nothing at all about Lazarus.
This void must have inspired the poet Henry Coleman (who died in 1640). Wanting to explore what the silent figure might have been thinking, he wrote “On Lazarus Raised from the Dead.” It is written in the first person from the perspective of the body in the tomb:
Where am I, or how came I here, hath death
bereaved me of my breath,
or do I dream?
Nor can that be, for sure I am
there are no ensigns of a living man,
beside, the stream
of life did fly
from hence, and my blessed soul did soar on
and well remember I,
my friends on either side
did weeping stand
to see me die;
most certain then it is my soul was fled
forth on my clay, and I am buried.
These linens plainly show this cave did keep
my flesh in its deep sleep,
and yet a noise
me-thought I heard, of such strange force
as would have raised to life the dullest corpse,
so sweet a voice
as spite of death
distilled through every vein a living breath,
and sure heard it charge
me by my name, even thus
come forth at large,
and so nought hinders, I will straightway then
appear, (though thus dressed) ere it call again…
I like that the poem begins with confusion. What is going on here? Where am I? What happened to me? Once these questions are settled a disruption is inserted: “Me-thought I heard something.” But what? A noise, a sound, a voice. Just as in the first part of the poem, understanding and clarity emerge only over time. Next comes a strange feeling: “distilled through every vein a living breath.” Just like Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones, something restorative begins to happen to Lazarus. Coleman’s wonderful image invites us to ponder what it might feel like to have life reenter a body it had departed. Now Lazarus is able to make out quite clearly Jesus’ voice calling him forth. I love how the poem ends as Lazarus realizes he is not properly dressed, yet wants to move forward ere the voice have to call again.
Coleman’s poem helps me to remember that there are many different kinds of dying each of us will experience in life before we experience the death of our body. Our very first moment in life comes only as we die to life in our mother’s womb. We form friendships and friends move away. We fall in love with a novel, but the book ends. We pour ourselves into the life of a school, only to graduate and leave it all behind. We are young and vital, but as we age our physical capacities and condition diminish. We have a career, but change jobs or even change vocations, and eventually retire. We marry, but every marriage ends either in death or divorce. We have children, but children grow up and move on. Only a precious few manage to sail through life without being touched by tragedy – the untimely or cruel loss of someone or something near and dear. We experience many kinds of dying in this life before we experience the death of our body.
Coleman’s poem has identified a pattern we go through in some form or another after each death we experience in life. His is the poetic version of Kűbler-Ross’ more clinical five stages of grieving. First there is confusion. We don’t understand all that we are feeling and may not even recognize that we have lost something. Confusion eventually yields to insight. And while understanding is important, it is not enough. We can know exactly what is gone in our life and we can identify precisely how it has affected us, but that is not enough to get us going again. We can stay stuck or shutdown for a very long time.
But then there comes what we only hear as a noise, then as a sound, and finally as a voice – God’s voice – calling us to new life. This too can come about quite slowing or it may come upon us suddenly, dramatically or it may be some combination of both. Our stories of finding new life after loss are as unique and distinctive as the death we experienced.
I read once something Jess Trottier, one-time dean at Virginia Seminary, said years after the suicide of his son: “I have been to the depths and God has brought me back.” Can you identify with that? Do you know what he means? Death has many different forms and faces. It takes us to different depths and places of darkness. Through it all, one thing is constant: God’s ability to bring us back.
The last question posed in The Outline of the Faith (commonly called The Catechism) in the Book of Common Prayer is this: “What is our assurance as Christians?” The answer: “Our assurance as Christians is that nothing, not even death, shall separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” “Nothing, not even death” is a phrase that rolls a lot together in a way which makes it easy to overlook the first in light of the second. Listen to it this way: “Death shall not separate us from the love of God.” “Nothing shall separate us from the love of God.” Somehow the first is easier to believe than the second, isn’t it!
There are times in this life when we feel so broken, so down, so afraid, so unworthy, so unloved or unlovable, that God’s love feels lost. But it is not, not ever. Somehow, somewhere, at some time which marries God’s choosing with our readiness, we hear a noise that becomes a sound that we come to recognize as a Voice. We come to sense that distilled through every vein of our life there is once again a living breath. God has called us back from the depths and we reenter life, wearing something new and being someone new for all that we have been through.
Haven’t you experienced this? I have. And that is why I am so assured. Since nothing in this life has ever kept me separated from God’s love in Christ Jesus, I am convinced that death will not either. Some day I will die. I don’t know what it will feel like at first, nor do I have any sense of what it will be like in the beginning. But I believe with all my heart that there will come a time when I will hear the Voice I have heard so often in life, calling me by name one final time. And I believe at that moment I will respond immediately to a great, new adventure, ere the Voice should have to call me again.