Do you remember the comedian Danny Thomas? After his father’s death, he wrote about that robust, energetic man who had emigrated from Lebanon with his wife. The Thomas family prospered and raised a large family. When his father was dying, he called his wife and all his children around him. He raised himself up in bed, looked at them all lovingly and said, “Damn death!” Those were his last words.
Somehow I think those words sum up the rage, the grief, the helplessness that we have all felt when we have lost someone close to us, or when we realize our own time is limited on this earth…or in this rare moment when a pandemic threatens to invade our lives in an invisible way.
Death is cruel. It is terrifying. It goes counter to everything we cherish.
It is too bad that our churches are now closed for public worship, for today, we are gifted with the story of Jesus and his friend Lazarus. Today we understand that Jesus knows only too well the pain of losing someone close to him. Troubled in spirit, moved by deeper emotions, Jesus wept.
Some Scripture scholars believe that the words “He was deeply troubled in spirit” would be better translated “he was angry.” Jesus was angry as we have been angry when life is disrupted and we are helpless. For all intents and purposes Jesus would have agreed with Danny Thomas’ father; “Damn Death!” Jesus was not philosophical about death, nor does God expect us to be stoical, unmoved in the face of death – anyone’s death.
So why do we read this lengthy gospel two weeks before Easter? Because followers of Christ like us believe that, in Jesus, God has indeed damned death.
In his Passion, Jesus did not bypass the terrors of death. He met death head on. Jesus was not willing to give death the last word. We hear that conviction in today’s gospel when Jesus says to Martha “I am the resurrection and the Life. Whoever believes in me, even though he dies will live” (John 11.25). In other words, we are made for life, not for death. We are made for God, the living God, the God of life. Death is the antithesis of everything Jesus represents, of everything He is. He is life.
This is why Easter is the critical, central feast of our Faith. This is why we prepare ourselves for it during Lent – any Lent – but this one, with its remarkable face-to-face encounter with death. This is why we read this gospel today.
It helps us focus on our belief that one day, Jesus will say to all of us as he said standing before the tomb in Bethany so long ago:
“Lazarus! Martha! Mary! And all of you, my beloved friends: Come out! Into the Light!
Untie them and let them go free.”
~Sister Joan Sobala