Today we celebrate All Souls Day. We ‘celebrate’? How can we celebrate when shortly we shall be remembering by name before God our loved ones who have died, and whom we so miss?
‘Behold, I tell you a mystery! We shall not all die, but we shall all be changed. In a moment, in a twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible.’ Those amazing, thrilling words from St Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. I can never read them without hearing Handel’s Messiah ringing in my ears! And they are words which tell us just what it is that we are celebrating today. We are celebrating what lies at the very heart of our faith as Christians. Jesus truly died, and yet was raised to life by God. And all who have faith in Jesus, although we too will die, will also be raised to life by God. Paul goes on to proclaim in ringing terms, ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory. Where O death is your sting? The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.’ The promise and hope of resurrection, of new life, IS our gospel as Christians. It seems to me that so much in life points to this. Just as winter leads to spring, so death and resurrection, loss and hope, seem to penetrate the very fabric of life itself.
The story of the Raising of Lazarus is one of the great miracles, the signs in the Gospel of John. It is a wonderful story, but unlike the other signs, it seems to have a shadow cast over it. For, in full tragic irony, Jesus giving life to Lazarus results directly in the decision to put Jesus to death. The shadow cast over the story is the shadow of the Cross.
For immediately after Jesus has raised Lazarus, we read: ‘Some of those who had come with Mary went to the Pharisees and told them what he had done.’ And the Pharisees were filled with fear. At once, they and the chief priests called a meeting of the council and said, ‘What are we going to do?’ the council was no less than the Sanhedrin – the highest Jewish court and governing body. That’s how serious the threat of this man Jesus was to them. The meeting was highly charged, and the most powerful emotion was fear. ‘What are we going to do?’, said one. ‘We can’t let him carry on like this’, said another. ‘Everyone will believe in him, and then what? The Romans will come and destroy our Temple and our whole nation.’ Next, Caiaphas the high priest joined in: ‘You know nothing at all.’ In Greek it is stronger, rather like, ‘You are talking rubbish!’ The tension was rising. Fear was everywhere. They all felt it. And what they feared most from Jesus is what they thought they would lose. If this man was allowed to carry on they would lose everything; their status, their position in society, their power – everything. They risked losing their very selves.
For several years prior to my coming to the Monastery I was a parish priest. A number of us pastors in the area took a monthly rotation as a night chaplain in the local community hospital. During these night shifts, we chaplains would spend most of our time on-call in the intensive care unit and in the emergency room, helping care for very sick, sometimes traumatized patients, family members, and the medical staff. On more than a few occasions I recall standing beside a hospital gurney that was weighted down by a tragedy-in-the-making, and my having little or nothing to say to the patient or loved ones or to the staff. What we often shared in those moments were tears, but I had few, if any, words. What’s to be said? Less rather than more, and for several reasons.