44Take off the grave clothes and let him go.”
“The living Jesus is a problem in our religious institutions. Yes. Because if you are having a funeral, a nice funeral, and the dead person starts to move, there goes the funeral! And, dear brothers and sisters, Jesus is moving.”
Juan Carlos Ortiz
We trudge along this Lenten season towards the horror of the cross. Just two weeks away, Good Friday marks the day when the shadow of death will completely shroud us in darkness and despair. As the body of Lazarus lies entombed, wrapped in the grave clothes of death, we find ourselves also shrouded in darkness, wrapped in the grave
clothes of sin: fear reigning in our hearts.
There are certain men and women in the Gospels whom I long to meet one day. Not the individuals whose names are most famous in the New Testament text, but people like Bartimaeus, the woman caught in adultery, the friend of Cleopas on the road to Emmaus, and the Samaritan woman who meets Jesus at the well. These are all folks who, after life-transforming encounters with Jesus, walk off into anonymity. I want to know the rest of their stories.
And then there’s Lazarus. Perhaps his (post) post-mortem story is the one I’d be most interested in hearing. In John 11, Lazarus has died and his body lies entombed for four days before Jesus finally shows up. Both Mary and Martha share their remorse that a quicker response from Jesus could have spared their brother’s life. The fact is, however, that death has won and swallowed up yet another victim. This time, the deceased is their own dear brother-a man Jesus himself deeply loved.
Jesus came to Judea, ostensibly, to “wake up” his friend Lazarus. But, there is something even more significant at play. The verbs used in the text (verses 33 and 38) reveal that Jesus’ initial emotive response is that of bitter anger and indignation. Theologian James Alison suggests that Jesus’ anger was directed at the culture of death around him. A culture evidenced by the professional mourners who wail as a choir in tribute to death as master and king. Jesus heads to Judea on a mission; he will revive his friend, redefine death, and in the process, erase the suffocating fear that has created a culture of death.
Jesus knows that awaking Lazarus has officially initiated his own journey into the darkness of the tomb. After he’s buried, will his surviving friends and family fall into the same paralyzing fear of death’s power that surrounded Lazarus? Or, is Jesus here to reveal an ethic of life in place of the paralyzing fear of death?
What Augustine referred to as “timor mortis”(Latin for the fear of death) does more damage than any other phobia. We respond to it by burying our head in the sand or running away, both of which cause great harm and hold us back from the experience of unbridled freedom.
When we are free from the fear of death, we are free to live generous lives in service to the other, even our enemies. On our Lenten journey, we, alongside Lazarus, are dressed in grave clothes. But we will soon be called out of the relentless fear of death and into the intoxicating freedom of life. Lazarus’ miracle is our miracle. Death is conquered both for him and for us.
I cannot imagine what the rest of Lazarus’s life must have looked like. He had been to the grave and back again. And now, unhinged from the fear of death, he spends the rest of his life in the freedom of the resurrection.
The movie Of Gods and Men illustrates this kind of freedom beautifully. One scene in particular captures the crux of the film and the human predicament. Luc is a doctor who has been treating rebels wounded in the Algerian Civil War. The abbot, who is working through his own fears, warns Luc to be careful. Luc responds to the abbot:
“Throughout my career I’ve met all sorts of different people. Including Nazis. And even the devil. I’m not scared of terrorists, even less of the army. And I’m not scared of death. I am a free man.”
That’s Gospel freedom. Freedom from the fear of death as we, like Lazarus, will soon hear the glorious words of Jesus:
“Take off the grave clothes and let him (them) go.”
Joel Van Dyke
Director, Urban Training Collaborative
P.S. “To learn to follow Jesus is the training necessary to become a human being. To be a human is not a natural condition, but requires training. The kind of training required, moreover, has everything to do with death. To follow Jesus is to go with him to Jerusalem where he will be crucified. To follow Jesus, therefore, is to undergo a training that refuses to let death, even death at the hands of enemies, determine the shape of our living.”