The Word Embodied

Release from the Tombs

“I will open your graves and you will rise.” (Ez 37:12)

I wonder how it was when Lazarus died for the second time. Were Mary and Martha there? Most likely Jesus was not; for he, shortly after he raised Lazarus, died the death himself and, despite the Resurrection, left the sisters to grieve once again.

Of what did Lazarus eventually die? Was it a recurrence of the original affliction or something unforeseen? Did Mary and Martha, the second time around, think that Jesus could spare Lazarus anew? Martha, remember, had told Jesus, “If you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Perhaps she would be bold enough to wonder out loud what the point of the earlier miracle was if Lazarus was going to die anyway.

The Fourth Gospel goes to some length to show that Lazarus was a special case, unlike the other reported miracles of restored life. First, Jesus loved Lazarus and his sisters “very much.” And since his “beloved Lazarus has fallen asleep,” Jesus set out (taking his dear old time) to wake him. This deliberate delay led to the second special point: Lazarus was really dead. Finished. He was wrapped up in the tomb for four days. This would not be some case of a “near-death” experience or an early version of the persistent vegetative state. Face wrapped up, bound hand and foot, Lazarus was so dead that one of his sisters warned Jesus that there would “surely be a stench.”

Thus it was that another stupendous reversal took place. What was irretrievably dead would live again. What looked final was not. What seemed finished had only just begun. As Ezekiel prophesied over the valley of bones, even a people as good as dead could hope in the living God. When all was lost, much more would be found. “I will put my spirit in you that you may live, I have promised, and I will do it, says the Lord.”

This promise is what I have had to rely on during these early weeks of a year when the bodies of people close to me have been consigned to tombs. 

One was in her nineties, ready to go, even eager. She was apprehensive about the prospect (is the promise true? is the hope real?), but she managed to put it in Christ’s hands. She had wanted to follow him and his mercy as far back as the roaring twenties—a time so strange to our own we would not recognize it. She wondered what the upshot of all those years might be, that parade of joy and sorrow, all the rotations of nations and mighty personages, all the momentous invention and art? And more: What of her life? What happened to the far-off dreams of an eighteen-year-old who knew a church that would “never” change, a liturgy that would “always” be in Latin facing the wall, a community that would always be there, thriving and growing. Has my valiant aunt really died? Is she forever in the tomb?
A second soul, forty years her junior, went suddenly, without the lingering liturgies of bedside comfort and the usual months of long-expected diminishment. No, she went too soon, before her grandmotherly days arrived, before the merited benefits of rest and refreshment. She had felt a rekindling of faith’s light at the end—but so briefly seen, so quickly gone. It was extinguished. Was that once red-headed teenage girl buried eternally?

Finally a third tomb, unworthy of the loved Lazarene we brought there, the ground so impenetrably hard, its dusty surface covered with dead leaves. Surely Christ would weep at this funeral. How could he not be troubled in spirit, moved by the same deep emotion he felt at the grave of Lazarus. This young grace we grieved died in her early thirties, the age of the Jesus she emulated. Like him, she was a comet, a prophetess, a seer, and a deep, abiding, life-long friend. See how her parents and family, her husband, and her comrades so miss her. If only the Lord had been there, she might … being there, his sobs would be seen, while we would whisper under our breath, “See how much he loved her.”

All death is untimely, rude, and somehow hopeless, whether of a nonagenarian or her great-grandniece, a fresh infant at death’s door, bearing mortal wounds since conception. All deaths lead to dust, dry bones in valleys, dissolved bodies in tombs.

Jesus’ raising of Lazarus was a holding action. So were all his other miracles. Sickness and death were just postponed. But these miracles, like the quickened, sinewed bones rising before the pie eyes of Ezekiel are also a promise. In our profession of faith, we are not asked to acquiesce in a fait accompli; we are asked to believe, to trust a promise made to us, that even though we die, we will come back to life in a love who is our resurrection. If we live and die in that belief, then with Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, with our ancient wise ones, with our veterans tested in the prime of life, and with our vivacious young whose whole being is promise, nothing of our good and grace will be lost or forgotten in tombs.

If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, then the one who raised Christ from the dead will bring your mortal bodies to life also through his Spirit dwelling in you.

John Kavanaugh, SJ

Father Kavanaugh was a professor of Philosophy at St. Louis University in St. Louis. He reached many people during his lifetime.


**From Saint Louis University

Kristin Clauson