The following is the fifth installment of a seven-part lenten blog/video series sponsored by Franciscan Media. For the previous reflections, click here. For those subscribing by email, click here to watch the video.
My grandmother lived a very long, full life. In the 91 years before she died, she raised a lively family of ten children—her crown jewel—who then produced her twenty-eight grandchildren and four great-grandchildren; never once did she go to a party and fail to make an impression on the other guests; and all throughout her life, she found pleasure praying the rosary and going to mass, even being fortunate enough to pilgrimage to both Rome and Medjugorje on multiple occasions. If there was a bucket list for my grandmother, I can hardly think of something that she left unchecked. She lived a very long, full life.
Unfortunately, not everyone is so lucky.
Statistically speaking, roughly 160,000 people die every day around the world. Of those, 29,000 are children under the age of five dying from mostly preventable causes. And while overall age expectancy is up to 69 years old—the greatest it has ever been in human history—an estimated one in five people will still die between the ages of 15 and 60.
Why do three-year-olds die? Why are so many lives cut short leaving behind family and loved ones? Why, oh why, does God allow innocent people to die?
While some may see these questions as an attack on God, a show of one’s lack of faith or antagonism against religion, I believe that our asking them is not only justified, they are at the very core of our faith. More than anything else, our Christian faith finds its merit in our ability to answer the difficult questions of life and death. In fact, I believe that Jesus wanted us to ask the question so that He could answer it.
Cue chapter 11 of John’s Gospel.
Traveling around to preach with his disciples, Jesus hears word that his close friend, Lazarus, is gravely ill. Knowing of course that Jesus has already performed six extraordinary signs thus far in the Gospel, the reader no doubt expects Him to return to his friend to perform one more. But he doesn’t. Instead, and against his disciples urging, he remains where he is and lets Lazarus die. This detail is not lost upon Lazarus’ sister. Upon arriving to Lazarus’ house, now four days after his death, Martha shares with Jesus how she truly feels: “Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died.” Even though she concludes by showing that she trusts Jesus, Martha, once again, represents how we so often feel. Why, God, when you have such power would you let this happen? Don’t you love us? She, like so many of us in tragedy, is unable to reconcile how God can be all loving and all powerful, and yet allow things like this to happen.
So why did Jesus delay? Was it because He didn’t truly care for Lazarus? Surely not, as he wept when He saw his tomb.
Was it because He didn’t have the power to heal him? Surely not, as He had already shown the power to perform incredible signs of the Father’s glory.
No, the reason he delays, as He tells His disciples on the road that they are delaying, “is for the glory of God, that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” Jesus wanted Lazarus to die so that He could show how pointless a fear of death is. Jesus wanted to show that death—the inevitable event that we dread and so tell ourselves will never happen to us, the thing that grips our souls and leaves us in fear more than anything else— has no power over Him. “I am the resurrection and the life,” He says. “Whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”
Death is not a punishment from God or something to fear because death is not the end of the story. It is a beginning. It is a sign of the great power and wonder of God to give even greater life to those who lose their earthly one, a sign that He demonstrates in his own dying, offering us a path to follow. We have to die if we want to be like Jesus. We have to die if we want to rise and live with him for eternity. In allowing Lazarus to die and demystifying the experience of death—even tragic ones—Jesus calls us to follow after Him, even in death, without fear.
And so He asks Martha, and I believe asks all of us when we find ourselves struck by tragedy, “Do you believe this?” Do we truly believe that Jesus has the power to conquer death? Do we believe that Jesus truly rose from the grave and that we who are baptized into his death will do the same? Do we believe that death is not the end but in fact simply a new beginning, a gateway into eternal communion with the creator of the universe?
And what would our lives look like if we truly did?
My guess is that it would still be sad. Jesus wept when he heard of Lazarus’ death because it’s always sad to lose someone we love. Whether its my 91-year-old grandmother or a three-year-old child, death is always tragic. It is still okay to mourn.
And yet, if we truly believed what Jesus showed us in his raising of Lazarus, we could never despair or give up hope. Our lives would not be dictated by fear of death, getting old, or losing loved ones, but constantly filled with the reassuring joy that nothing—not even death—can keep us from the communion we share with each other in Jesus. Jesus did not simply “raise from the dead,” Jesus is alive. Jesus is, in the present tense. And so are we. And so is everyone we love now or ever loved in the past. We may never know for sure why some people die tragically earlier than others, and yet we find in Jesus that the question doesn’t have the sting that it used to. Death is not a punishment or the end, but our entrance into eternal life with God and others.
This was the most beautifully written post, I am in awe of your words today. Thank you for taking the time to write this so beautifully. Well said!
P.S. In other words, you knocked that one out of the ballpark!
In the bible God seemed to intervene quite a lot,so why does he not appear to do anything nowadays?
As a healthcare worker, this article hits close to home. It is always a question that lies in the back of my mind as I watch people suffer through the end of their life. It’s not the suffering or the death that seem difficult but rather the way we push and push and push to extend lives only to create difficult questions for families to answer and suffering for those who are dying.
Talking about death so openly can feel frightening or even taboo but I witness everyday how opening up this conversation would actually bring more peace and comfort into many people’s lives.
I want to also acknowledge that this conversation can be very nuanced and situation dependent. I don’t want to place judgement on individuals and families who face these questions. Rather, I would love to see more open conversations that would openly speak the word death without the hushed tone that usually surrounds it. I want families to feel liberated from this fear and then truly have options and support for themselves and their loved ones.
Such a powerful, poignant and timely message. Thank you for your insight into a most difficult subject for us all….
I’m reminded of a song, “Passing Through,” sung to perfection (in my view) by Leonard Cohen:
I saw Jesus on the cross on a hill called Calvary
“Do you hate mankind for what they done to you?”
He said, “Talk of love not hate, things to do – it’s getting late.
I’ve so little time and I’m only passing through.” . . . .
I was with Washington at Valley Ford, shivering in the snow.
I said, “How come the men here suffer like they do?”
“Men will suffer, men will fight, even die for what is right
Even though they know they’re only passing through”
I’d quote the whole song, but the above will do for my comment. That is, what this song – and religion, Catholicism in particular – gets right in my view is the evocative notion that death is not only to be not feared, but that its inevitability should be used as a reminder to live a good life “even though [we] know [we’re] only passing through.” The message, in other words is that we should live well not “even though” but BECAUSE we are “only passing through.”
My two critical points are as follows. First, abstract notions, however, evocative, require a secure yet free social context to be realized. To put this point another way, it is one thing to realize in the abstract that living out good principles is the best thing to do; it is another thing to actually live them out in a context wherein doing so may be harmful, even lethal, to one’s physical well-being and/or that of others. We are, after all, biologically programmed to live, so fear of death is not inherently irrational. In brief, it is not enough for songs and religion to sustain the spiritual/intellectual/imaginative dimension of one’s life. While it is true that people cannot “live on bread alone,” “bread” is necessary. Though the gospels clearly make the same point, my point is that making points is not the same thing as living them out. From what I know of it, liberation theology was/is a good step toward bridging theology and social justice. Unfortunately, there is a strong tendency within the institutional Church to de-emphasize, even condemn, the latter on the grounds that it places too much emphasize on this world, not the next.
Second, even socially realizable notions that are good in the abstract may do harm in practice if their abstract terms are at all exclusionary. The above song, for example, refers to “men” and a decidedly patriotic view of dominant American history. While it is possible to regard these references as metaphorically inclusive, I wouldn’t begrudge people or peoples who might take offence at the song – and at people who go around singing its praises uncritically. In the abstract, the radical idea of baptism, communion, and confirmation speak to the moral importance of including actual people and respecting their actual – and often inexpressible – experiences in the idea of everlasting life. But Catholicism also predicates these ideas on the belief that God had to first become manifest in Jesus for individual human beings to have a reliable guide toward salvation regardless of time and place. In doing so, it risks framing human experiences that are critical of Catholicism as being harmful, part of the “culture of death,” and so on. For example, when I attend mass occasionally with my family, I don’t take communion out of respect for the Catholic community whose members believe that non-practicing Catholics shouldn’t receive it. In doing, so however, I feel conspicuous, unwelcomed even, as I can feel people wondering – “why isn’t he taking communion?” – especially people who know that I grew up Catholic. Indeed, it is an interesting thing to experience the mass as an atheistic/agnostic “lapsed” Catholic because one immediately notices how entwined belief is with outward expressions, such as making the sign of the cross, kneeling, communion, etc. In other words, unless one is dishonest, is is impossible to attend mass without people knowing whether or not one is a full member of the community or not. While this dynamic can be a good thing – in exposing hypocrites, for example – it also sweeps up genuinely critical or unconvinced people in the category of those whose salvation is deemed questionable on account of their “faults,” occluding the fact that virtue can appear in the form of what is typically considered to be faulty.
I’ll leave it at that, along with the risk that my comment in the context-problematic context of the internet may repeat the problems that I try to outline above. I take the risk because I think that what I’ve said is at least intelligible – if not persuasive – to Catholics, of whom I will forever be one to one extent or another in form, though no longer in content. Best wishes.