Yet there is also something deeply profound at stake in the meaning of this occasion, for it brings together in one day the three great mysteries of our existence: life, love, and death. Today we hold these three mysteries in close proximity, as we remember in love those who have died, even while we entrust them into the hands of the living God. They are, if you will, the holy trinity of mysteries that touch the very core of what it means to be human.
I am put in mind by this day of the time several years ago when I heard for the first time that one of my college classmates had died: Larry was his name, one of my closest friends, and he was simultaneously a physician, a priest, a husband, and a father. Another of our classmates was asked to give the sermon—Ellen Aitken, who was dean of the Faculty of Theology at McGill University. In one of the most eloquent such orations I have ever heard, Ellen spoke to those of us who had known and loved Larry in these words:
We love knowing that those whom we love will die; we love knowing that our hearts will be broken. [Yet even so, we choose to love. That’s the paradox at the center of our lives.]
And then, quoting the poet Mary Oliver, she said:
To live in this world
you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.1
Such is the nature of the interconnectedness of love and death. Yet such a paradox doesn’t just come from nowhere. It begins with God, and with God’s own love, which seeking an object toward which to direct its own passion and longing brings into being the creation, and places us within it as partners in God’s creative activity.
Even so, this creation in which we live, is not God but only God’s gift, so it is not itself eternal. Only God is that. Creation is temporal, and therefore it necessarily resolves itself into death, as the Day of the Dead so vividly reminds us. We human beings die. Plants and animals, die. Even stars die.
But the great wonder is, that even knowing we exist within this inescapable matrix of life and death, we human beings choose to love that which we know will die—spouses, partners, children, friends—and so we put ourselves inexorably on course to have our hearts broken when they die. Grief is the price of love. We nevertheless seem to reason that the richness and depth of the experience of love is so great and so fundamental to who we are, that we are willing to accept the price—to accept the price of having our hearts broken.
Our scriptures today, however, would have us to realize that such grief is not the last word; it is not an unlimited price. In John’s vision of a New Jerusalem given to us in the book of Revelation, he sees a new heaven and a new earth in which all things will be made new. In this new creation, the death toward which this life leads is not definitive, but like everything else that is created, death itself is only temporal—and it leads toward a new reality.
Jesus’ raising of Lazarus in today’s gospel is meant to demonstrate this point as vividly as the writer knows how to make it. The scene is this: Jesus has been called to Bethany to tend his sick friend Lazarus, but by the time he gets there from where he was the other side of the Jordan, Lazarus has died and has already been in the tomb for four days. Now, the text goes out of its way to emphasize just how dead Lazarus really is: Mary (the dead man’s sister) is actively grieving his death, as are all her weeping friends. And when Jesus asks for the tomb to be opened, Martha (Lazarus’ other sister) recoils in horror: there will certainly be a revolting stench by now, for the body will be decaying. Lazarus is very dead.
But Jesus persists, so the tomb is opened, and then Jesus calls the dead man forth—and to the amazement of all, Lazarus appears at the entrance to the tomb still wrapped in his burial cloths, from which Jesus commands that he be unbound and let go.
Now John gives us ample clues that the point of this episode is not just that Jesus was able to resuscitate a corpse—and a decaying one at that. Remember that this is John’s gospel, the one that begins with the prologue, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” John’s Jesus is the incarnate Word, the Cosmic Christ, the one through whom all things were made, and so the raising of Lazarus is presented not just as a miracle story, but as a sign that the one through whom life itself was first created and given to Lazarus, is also the one who is able to make that life new.
On one hand, this is the same Jesus who, like us, shares the experience of both loving and grieving his departed friend. Jesus, John tells us, weeps. But we also glimpse another side of Jesus as he moves beyond his grief to call on the Father, the one from whom he has been sent, to reveal his glory in the gift of new life. Lazarus standing at the entrance to his own tomb is not, therefore, simply an instance of a miraculous restoration of a life that was thought to have expired in death—but rather it is a vision of the new creation toward which life leads even in death, overtaking death and putting it aside.
Think of it this way: in that trinity of life, love, and death that is the central mystery of our being, we do not remain stationary or trapped at any one of those three poles. Rather, we continually circulate among them: we move from love to its expression in life, from life to its eclipse in death, and from death to its renewal in love’s new creation. Indeed these three mysteries of life, love, and death mirror the Trinity of God’s own being as Father, Son and Holy Spirit: just as the self-emptying love of the three persons circulates among them, so too is there a circulation between the mysteries of live, love, and death.
C. S. Lewis, in his book A Grief Observed, noted that, “all reality is iconoclastic.” He meant that what we tend to take for granted is often contradicted when we encounter the true, authentic reality of God. Death is one such thing. The finality of death which we take to be absolute, is contradicted by the deeper reality of the loving communion which we continue to share through God with those who have gone before us. That is not to say that grief is not real; nor is it to say that grief is not one of the hardest things we have to bear; but it is to say that it is not ultimate.
My friend Ellen captured this idea in concluding her sermon for Larry. “Larry,” she said, “was peculiarly, even precociously, aware of the mortality knit into our bodies, into the fabric of our lives and loves; this is, I would say, what gave him the deep capacity for receiving into his heart and mind the complexities of human life. Yet over the years I knew him, he became increasingly and visibly aware of the other reality knit into our souls and bodies, the reality of resurrection life, pulsing within us, already at work this side of the grave.” That is the iconoclastic reality of Christian faith. That is the iconoclastic nature of the trinity of life, love, and death, that holy mystery we commemorate together today as the Feast of All Saints. Amen.