The lights were dimmed softly when I walked into the room. There were twenty or so people in the room, gathered in a lumpy circle around someone I could not clearly see. As the circle parted slightly to allow me to join them I saw a young mother, sitting in a rocking chair holding a bundle, beside her stood a young father. In the circle were grandmas and grandpas, cousins and best friends, sisters and brothers who’d come to see the baby – and tell him goodbye. The room in which our stories were converging was one on the pediatric intensive care unit at our local children’s hospital and the baby, Mark*, well he was dying – and I – I was the chaplain on duty that night. Everything that could be done for four-month-old baby Mark had been done and yet his decline continued. His young parents – just 18 and 19 – had done what many parents do – they decided to release him from ongoing medical interventions that were painfully preventing the immanent and inevitable.
So here I was, at 2:30 in the morning, an intern, the rookie, the chaplain present to love them and walk with them through this valley. Mom was rocking gently, her tears spilling onto his tiny race-car blanket while dad stood by, shifting from foot to foot, occasionally placing his hand tenderly on her shoulder. When I introduced myself to her she asked everyone to leave, everyone except her home pastor and myself. Pastor Bobby, a 50-something Baptist minister in blue jeans and cowboy boots looked at me – ME – expectantly. I knelt at mom’s side and said “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.” She wept openly and said “I’ve prayed and prayed for Jesus to heal him and I know Jesus can if He wants to, but I guess Jesus just needs Mark in heaven with Him instead.”
Oh and my heart broke, I wanted to tell her that Jesus does not need your baby to die, or to tell her something that would not leave her thinking that God is a cruel God who makes tiny boys suffer in order to gain anther angel, but of course this was IN NO WAY the time to talk to her about a theology of suffering and death, heaven and hell or to discuss the nature of God or debunk our transactional way of praying.
But I had been walking around in that theology in the halls of the hospital – and the Lazarus text, among others – was particularly weighing on my mind. See early in my work in clinical pastoral education someone offered the Lazarus story as a way to work with grieving parents and I had to do a whole lot of workin’ and prayin’ to get there. The pleading of mothers and grandmothers, fathers and uncles for God to heal their child, even to bring their child back – these were too heavy and made the Lazarus text feel cruel, feel like a withered promise never to be fulfilled again. But I was never able to shake the text, no matter how I tried, for that is the way The Word works. It stayed at my heels inviting me to pay closer attention. Believe it or not, this liberal Christian really believes there is a deep and lasting truth in those ancient texts and it is up to us to work and pray faithfully so that we may hear God’s Word for us today.
When we look at the Gospels we do find stories of healing and resurrection. Unlike in the Hebrew Bible where folks who die have the decency to stay dead, in the Gospels people are popping out of graves and lurching around as Jesus and his followers travel and perform signs and wonders. Jesus heals many, resurrects Jairus’ daughter and Lazarus. Much later, after Jesus had left His earthly ministry, Peter calls forth Dorcus from death. But of course they did not heal all the sick nor raise all the dead.
Jesus did come to open up a paradigm shift regarding living, dying and being but it is easy to misunderstand this new way. So what does the Christian testament about the life of Jesus, the embodiment of God’s will, teach us about grief and suffering, about the presence of death? One thing we know for certain is that a life of piety, a life lived as near to perfection as possible will not stave off suffering or death. Barbara Brown Taylor reminds us that Jesus, so far as we know, is the only perfect human life, lived wholly oriented toward the will of God and his life, suffering and death are hard evidence that goodness is no protection from pain, Jesus knew every level of pain, emotional, spiritual, and physical unto death.
So what then do we do with this Lazarus text? If we take it at first glance as we often do, we can be satisfied with a miracle story, the exhibition of God’s power in the incarnation of Jesus. This is in fact the meaning of this encounter right? Yes and more, always more. Other things, deeper things are happening beyond the raising of the dead (not to say that is not enough!) But speaking to me out of this scripture is the striking depiction of Jesus’ grief.
The culture of mourning, explored throughout the bible – the highly ritualized wailing and mourning is the state in which Jesus finds the community when he (finally) arrives in Bethany. Martha is bold – Where were you? You could have stopped this! Jesus is clear and resolute with Martha that her brother will live again this day, not in the end times but today. But when Jesus encounters Mary, and the throng of mourners he is greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. Jesus, our God revealed, weeps.
When I asked the family in the PICU if they wanted to pray, mom whispered, “Oh yes.” “For what should we pray?” I asked. “For Mark to be able to go on home, I’ve told him and he just won’t let go.” So we prayed – a prayer of lament and thanksgiving, a prayer for release. And then we were silent – and we all cried in the silence – the truest prayer of all. Silence and tears in the face of this death – so tiny and so huge.
Without the Lazarus story I would still be ashamed of my tears. I was initially sorry I had cried, I mean I am the chaplain, I should be steady and tear free, right? This is their story, not my story. But no, that is not right. It is our story. Jesus wept. Jesus, the ultimate chaplain who could do what no chaplain or doctor could do, wept.
As Thomas Merton puts it, “Jesus is the theology of the Father, revealed to us.” Jesus, fully God and fully human, is our best chance to understand God. It is possible to dismiss the weeping of Jesus as superfluous, and theologians have, but I would rather not take anything in the Gospel as superfluous. So what does it mean when Jesus weeps? The author of John has clearly indicated that Jesus knows full well he will raise Lazarus. The Gospel of John gives us a picture of Jesus was fully aware and intent – in control of every aspect of His ministry including his own crucifixion. So why on earth would Jesus weep if he knew for certain that his beloved friend would live again this day? Could it be that Jesus was simply moved to tears by the overwhelming scene of mourning with Mary clinging to his feet in despair? Yes that is part of it – for Mary could not see beyond her despair – Mary who could not apprehend hope in the presence of God. Is Jesus weeping for the suffering that lead to death, a suffering that he will not erase any more than Job’s suffering was erased when he was restored to health, given a new family.
Or could the grief that took hold of Jesus, took hold of God, in response to knowing in a new way the suffering of all humanity, from the beginning to this very moment – the struggle to be human, to suffer and die? And could Jesus be weeping for His story, which will unfold at a more rapid pace after Lazarus rise.? Jesus will die at the hands of the very people he loves so – the very people with which he mourns. Perhaps that is the true miracle of this story – that God took into God’s self the depth of our suffering in a new way – and wept.
After a while the broken hearted mom in that tiny dark room, holding her dying son – well – she asked for the baby fingernail clippers. Without the hint of a question in his eyes, dad moved into action, rummaging around in the overstuffed closet and found them in a pale blue gift bag, covered with storks and little angels. Out of the bag spilled a handful of baby shower gifts, – bottle-brushes, diaper ointment, rattles – the gifts of life, of a future that will never be. Dad deftly unwrapped the clippers and brought the little steel promise over to mom and she said to him, “No, I need you to.” And there they were, dad tenderly clipping the nails of his dying son, mom’s hand cupping his tiny head, mom cried and dad 19 and pimply, with a look of wise, pure love – clipped. Pastor Bobby and I looked away, stepped back from this intimate moment, a moment that felt so futile and so holy. Those things that are important in the days, hours and minutes before the death of our beloved – those are the things to which we are called to orient our whole lives in the face of the certainty of a death that will claim us all. We are called, as co-workers in creation with God – to walk along side and be a tangible reminder that those who suffer and those who are grieving are loved and valued by God.
Rather than notions of a transactional, vending machine God, who steps in and intervenes to save the innocent, cure cancer or stop the murderous rampage – we cling instead to the notion that God walks along side us in our suffering. Our holy companion on every journey even unto death – for God has walked all the way to death too. All the way and beyond. And that is where we are, in Gods loving embrace, that is where baby Mark, wrapped in the shawl of God’s love, – in life, into death and beyond. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
*Names have been changed