According to Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus visited Jerusalem only once as an adult, but John’s gospel tells us that he visited it at least three times. If John is correct, then the story of Lazarus makes a little more sense.
Bethany was a village on the outskirts of Jerusalem. Martha and Mary lived there with their brother Lazarus. It would have been a logical place for Jesus to stay during his visits to Jerusalem. Probably all of us have friends in large cities who have opened their homes to us when we have come to their towns, thus sparing us the expense and bother of staying in a hotel. Of course, in the time of Jesus there was no such thing as a hotel. To visiting Jerusalem or a similar city one had to have a friend who would open his or her home to you.
We know little about Mary and Martha and Lazarus. Luke’s gospel tells us that when Jesus visited Mary and Martha that Mary sat at his feet but Martha was busy with many things. What little we see of Mary and Martha in today’s gospel readings is consistent with that story.
At any rate, it is clear that the two sisters and their brother were friends of Jesus. So it is surprising that when Jesus hears that Lazarus is gravely ill that he hesitates rather than going at once to Bethany.
This is one of the mysteries of John’s gospel. Jesus has one idea of time; the people around him have another. For Jesus, time seems to go backward and forward; sometimes it speeds up, sometimes it slows down. When his mother tells him that there is no more wine for the wedding feast at Cana, he tells her that his time has not yet come. Present and future become one when he tells the Samaritan woman that the hour is coming and now is when all earthly places of worship will become redundant because God requires only that people worship him in spirit and in truth.
John’s portrait of Jesus also shows the early church struggling to make sense of the idea that Jesus was both fully human and fully one with God. Sometimes John’s Jesus seems to be an almost unearthly figure without human weaknesses and needs. When the disciples bring him food, he says that he does not need it because for him to do the work of God is food enough.
But the Jesus we see in the story of Lazarus is a fully human being.
At the very beginning of John’s gospel he tells us that Jesus is the very LOGOS of God who has taken human form. Logos means word, thought, reason. In other words, in Jesus the distance between God and humanity has collapsed. God’s inmost thoughts have taken on human flesh and dwell in the midst of us. At the beginning of John’s gospel, the author draws back the curtain and lets us in on the secret that others will discover during the course of the gospel as they see Jesus work miracles and finally be raised from the dead.
So if Jesus is the very thought, the very word of God, the word through which God spoke creation into existence, we expect miracles. Changing water into wine, giving sight to the blind, multiplying loaves and fishes – these should not cause any difficult for Jesus. Even raising Lazarus from the dead… But what we do not expect God’s incarnate word to do is to cry. This is the real miracle in today’s story. The raising of Lazarus from death to life is impressive but what moves me is that Jesus weeps, that there are tears at the very heart of God.
Today is All Saints’ Day. The saints, of course, are God’s elite. We know the saints because they are the ones who exhibit heroic sanctity. Like Mother Teresa they give their lives to serving the poorest of the poor; like Albert Schweitzer they spend their lives working in a tiny medical clinic in Africa while writing great books on theology and editing Bach’s organ works (actually, I think Schweitzer overdid it a bit). Like Martin Luther King, Jr. they risk and finally give their lives as they stand up for and speak out for dignity and justice for all.
This is all true as far as it goes, but I believe that the story of Lazarus tells us something else about real sanctity. Real sanctity, real holiness, also weeps. The saint is one who sheds tears over the death of a friend. The saint is one who shares her grief with others, and lets them share their grief with her.
The Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno said, “...I am convinced that we should solve many things if we went into the streets and uncovered our griefs, which perhaps would prove to be but one sole common grief, and joined together in beweeping them and crying aloud to the heavens and calling upon God. And this, even though God shold hear us not; but He wold hear us. The chiefest sanctity of a temple is that it is a place to which men go to weep in common.”
Today’s reading from the book of Revelation tells us of a new heaven and a new earth in which death is no more. But it goes on to say that “mourning and crying and pain will be no more.” We all long for a world in which death and sickness have disappeared, in which the hungry are fed and the homeless have shelter. I would change only one thing about this new heaven and new earth: Leave room for tears. I believe that real sanctity is to experience the whole range of human feelings from tears to laughter. That is what makes us human, that is what makes us holy. That is what draws us to one another and also draws us toward God.