By Adam Thomas
Over the last few months, I have had the opportunity to serve several people who were grieving over the deaths of loved ones. I’ve been a priest for nearly a year and a half, but it was not until this summer that I officiated at a burial office or spent hours with families, stumbling together through the wilderness of loss. These recent months have again and again brought me to the eleventh chapter of the Gospel according to John (which appears more than once in the burial service) and to my own first remembrance of the loss of a loved one.
In the months before she passed on, she began having difficulty remembering which of the people in the room were related to her. One time, she thought my father was her biological son, though he had married one of her four daughters thirty years before. The last time I saw my grandmother, she was confined to her bed in the nursing home, a sterile facility a few miles inland from the rock beaches of the northern Massachusetts coastline. In my memory, she was always a small woman, shrunken by age. But during that final visit, I was shocked by her deterioration: the sheets and blankets seemed to double her body mass. Her white hair, once so carefully curled, hung limply from her head. She spoke in a choked whisper, as if her words were too special to share with the rest of the world. And, in a way, they were.
We got the call one summer evening and immediately made plans to fly to New England. When we arrived, we joined the rest of the extended family and pooled our grief with theirs. Cousins and aunts and sisters shared long embraces and reassuring shoulder squeezes and tears. We conversed in muted tones, offering our favorite memories of Esther: the swing set adjacent to her apartment complex; her inability to cook pot roast; her glowing love for her grandchildren and great grandchildren. As we remembered my grandmother, we started repeating certain phrases. “She lived a long life.” “She’s no longer in pain.” “She was ready to go.” “A part of her died twenty years ago with Jack; I’m so glad they are together again.” These sentiments comforted us as we shared them with each other. An outsider listening in on our conversations might have scoffed at such clichéd remarks, but for our family such well-worn comments gave us words to assuage our grief.
When Jesus arrives in Bethany, Martha leaves her home and goes out to meet him. Their conversation begins with similar phrases that emerge out of grief. I imagine that Martha and Mary had often said, “If Jesus had been here, Lazarus wouldn’t have died,” in the four days since they had buried their brother. And now Martha addresses Jesus with these words: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Perhaps, this is an accusation; perhaps, it is a statement of faith. More likely (as is so often the case), it is a combination of the two. She continues, “But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.”
At first, Jesus responds with what sounds like an empty, stock answer to a grieving person: “Your brother will rise again.” Indeed, such a statement had probably reached cliché status at that time, considering a large portion of Jewish society believed in a final resurrection. Judging by her next words, Martha certainly takes Jesus’ words in this clichéd manner. I imagine her hanging her head when she says, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.”
But Martha has not grasped Jesus’ full meaning. Far from offering the usual comforting words to a person in grief, Jesus eliminates the cliché by completely retooling the rules for resurrection. “I am the resurrection and the life,” he says, “Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”
The writer of the Gospel throws the full weight of Jesus’ “I am” statements behind these words. By taking resurrection into his very identity, Jesus proclaims to Martha and to us that his business is always remaining in life-giving relationships. Yes, death will occur, he says; after all, resurrection cannot take place without death. But life, in some superlative form, emerges when resurrection denies the finality of death. The first verses of the Gospel link life and light: “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.” Just as darkness did not overcome light, death fails to conquer life because of the power of the resurrection.
Jesus’ words to Martha appear in our burial services to remind us of that power. But these words carry the weight of Jesus’ divine identity, and thus serve as so much more than a simple reminder. Resurrection is not some impersonal thing that may or may not impact our lives and deaths. Resurrection is not something to bring up just to make a grieving person feel better. Jesus is resurrection. Jesus is life. By revealing resurrection as part of his identity, Jesus further divulges the lengths to which he goes to be in relationship with us. Death cannot stop this relationship, because Jesus is resurrection and life.
Martha understands that resurrection assures this continued relationship with Jesus. When he asks her if she believes his words, she replies in the affirmative, but she answers a different question than the one Jesus asked. “Yes, Lord,” she says, “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” She answers that she believes in him. Rather than her belief fulfilling a requirement for resurrection, her belief simply affirms her relationship with Jesus. She desires a relationship with him, and Jesus, in his unwillingness to end such a relationship, offers the gift of resurrection. Our belief in Jesus affirms our desire to remain in relationship with him. His gift of resurrection affirms his desire to remain in relationship with us.
When my grandmother died, my family came together to celebrate her life in the midst of our grief. We spoke comforting words to each other, words that had the power of love behind them. And at the service where we laid Esther’s body to rest next to her beloved Jack, we heard Jesus’ words of life proclaiming Jesus’ desire to continue his relationship with us beyond death in the power of the resurrection.
The Rev. Adam Thomas, one of the first Millennials to be ordained priest, is the curate of Trinity Episcopal Church in Martinsburg, WV. He blogs at wherethewind.com.
* The names of my maternal grandparents have been changed (in order that you’ll have a harder pretending to be me while filling out bank forms).