(John 11. 1-45)
“Light griefs can speak; great ones are dumb.” (Seneca, Hippolytus)
Those were the words from the Roman philosopher Seneca which began Prudie’s funeral address in March of last year. Prudie was not my grandmother as a blood relative but she was a grandmother in spirit. Through the contingency of early deaths and the brokenness of life, I never really knew my own grandparents. I met Prudie when I was dating Kaitlin, to whom she was a maternal grandmother. We clicked straightaway: Prudie was small with short grey hair; she had a wicked sense of humour, chewed plastic lollipop sticks as a substitute for cigarettes, and had more rings and charms than fingers. Even though Prudie was tiny and frail, debilitated by emphysema and dependent on oxygen tubes, she radiated huge love and generosity to me. We would share lunches, either from a sandwich shop or from a hungry raid on her fridge, and talk about life, death, hopes, fears, and the meaning of it all. Prudie had a great faith in God. She inspired me to be open, vulnerable, kind, and silly all at once. Prudie was my grandmother for all effects and purposes. When she died, it was, and still is, the only experience of death that made me grieve, weep, and be lost for words. Light griefs can speak; great ones are dumb.
We enter this week what the Church calls Passiontide, the final part of Lent when we turn with Jesus inexorably and inevitably to Good Friday and the Cross. Passiontide calls us to face the hardest and yet most certain aspect of life, namely death. Prudie’s passing away is the first time I have faced death in such a personal way; but we face death as a community every year in Passiontide. So it is that our Gospel today begins this hard, yearly journey to the Cross with the death of Lazarus, “the one whom [Jesus] loves”. Lazarus’ sister Martha says to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” When a loved one dies, we might say the same to God: ‘Lord, why did the person I love have to die?’ How many of us, I wonder, would share Martha’s firm and trusting hope when she says to Jesus that “even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him”? How many of us can trust that God is with us and will bring life out of death, faced as we all are at some stage with heavy, speechless grief? This is the challenge for you and me this Passiontide.
How do we meet this challenge? How do we understand grief and God’s presence amidst our pain? Passiontide directs us to walk the way of the Cross with Jesus in order to experience God’s defeat of death and the depth of God’s love. In that walk of the Cross, magnified in Holy Week, we enter into the mystery of God’s love for us, even in the valley of the shadow of death. Without that walk, the kind of hope that Martha has about Jesus in today’s Gospel cannot and will not flourish. Without that walk, I can’t understand the death that Prudie has passed through and I will too one day.
But how is walking with Jesus the way of His cross, especially in the Passiontide of Holy Week, so vital and important? I think that walking the path of the Cross acts powerfully in two ways and we are called to engage with both of them.
First of all, we can experience that Jesus loves us, just as he loves Lazarus. “Jesus began to weep,” today’s Gospel tells us, for the one whom he loved. Jesus feels and knows the same grief as you and I do. Jesus knows that, in the midst of death, God can seem a long way away. That’s why, as he dies himself on the Cross, Jesus cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” All suffering is a kind of death, the destructive absence of life when the God of life seems far away. Our suffering, our hard griefs can be any loss of identity: the loss of work, physical or mental abilities, family, or friends. All these things are deaths. Yet, when we walk with Jesus in Holy Week, we can sense that God is with us even when God seems far away, and that God knows how we suffer, for Jesus does too.
Second, we can experience that God’s presence contains within it the hope and reality of new life. Jesus says to Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life” and asks, “Do you believe this?” Jesus gives his followers a glimpse of what he gives on the Cross when he resurrects Lazarus from the dead. Jesus says, “did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” Jesus defeats death forever in the Resurrection from the Cross. He gives the hope and reality of new life out of death. That hope and reality are ours, no matter how great our grief, if we walk the way of the Cross, give our burdens to Jesus, and share in his glory.
How do we walk the way of the Cross, then? After the service and again next week, you can take away with you some printed cards from one of the ministers. There is one card for each day of Holy Week, commencing with Palm Sunday next week. Each day, centre yourself with the reading, reflection, and prayer in the cards. Walk with Christ, even amidst what may be a busy week for you. In the pack, you will also find a list of daily services. Come along, walk with others in your church the way of the Cross. Experience healing, follow the last days of Jesus, embrace the Cross, find yourself and God there. Be there with your church when they crucify our Lord. Be there with your church when Jesus arises like a new dawn. Be there with your church and God will meet you in your walk.
Light griefs can speak; great ones are dumb. Prudie and I talked often about death and God. Death did not scare Prudie: she was more concerned about how she would go there. She wanted to die peacefully and in a way that showed her trust in God. Prudie passed away quickly, maybe too soon, and before anyone expected it. She left me, and I think others in her family too, with a sense of the reality of God’s glory. Death did not defeat Prudie, not really, nor truly, not absolutely. She had her own crosses to bear, for sure: ill health, mistakes, regrets. But she has her own resurrection too, like Lazarus. How could death destroy the love she gives and receives, not least from God? I see, if only dimly and through a glass, what the power of Jesus’ Cross and Resurrection achieve for Prudie. “Death be not proud,” as the poet John Donne puts it, for:
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And Death shall be no more: Death, thou shalt die!
This Passiontide, walk with Jesus. Embrace your cross. Seek your resurrection. Be there, with your church, in Holy Week to find healing, forgiveness, and eternal life. God will meet you and transform even your great grief.
Let us pray:
you gave up your Son
out of love for the world:
lead us to ponder the mysteries of his passion,
that we may know eternal peace
through the shedding of the Saviour’s blood.