When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, ‘The Teacher is here and is calling for you.’ And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there. When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’ When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, ‘Where have you laid him?’ They said to him, ‘Lord, come and see.’ Jesus began to weep. So the Jews said, ‘See how he loved him!’ But some of them said, ‘Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?’
Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, ‘Take away the stone.’ Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, ‘Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead for four days.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?’ So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upwards and said, ‘Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.’ When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out!’ The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, ‘Unbind him, and let him go.’ — John 11:28-44 NRSV
It’s a phone call or visit nobody wants but everybody receives at some point in time. Hearing of a death of a loved one or a dear friend is always hard. There’s shock, there’s pain and there’s a feeling of unreality about it that takes time to shift and the mind to clear. Quite often the first instinct is to gather with others to mourn the loss in community, but in the end every person has to begin to deal with it on their own.
Jesus got the news but his reaction to it was a bit strange. Instead of rushing off to see his friend who was ill, Jesus seems to just go about his own business. After several days, he informs the disciples that Lazarus is “sleeping” and that he is going to go wake him up. By the time they get to Bethany, Lazarus has been dead for at least four days. Jesus weeps for his friend, but then calls him to come out. Lazarus obediently comes out, still wrapped in grave clothes and everyone sees that a miracle has happened.
The story sort of plays loosely with the concept of time. Jesus gets the news, two days pass, he declares Lazarus dead and starts back to Bethany, arriving when Lazarus has been entombed for four days. He would have been buried on the day of his death; to delay burial was, in that time and climate, tantamount to inviting the unpleasant odor of decomposition (and some rather unpleasant visual signs). Jesus must have been quite a distance away or he took a rather leisurely saunter, but that’s not the point of the story, I believe. The point was that if Lazarus had really begun to stink, and after four days it could have been quite a stench, then seeing him walk out of the burial cave would have made obvious the fact that a miracle had really happened. The smell proved the death, the animation of Lazarus in his grave clothes proved his resurrection.
Today in this country we seldom are exposed to the smell of death. Death is tidied up and sanitized, the dear departed, if at all possible, is dressed as if going to the office, Sunday dinner or even church, touched with just a hint of makeup to erase the pallor of death and make it indeed seem like they were just, if euphemistically, sleeping. At one time and among some people there was a concern that they would be buried alive, so their coffins had small holes drilled in them and a piece of string was attached to a bell above the ground so that if the dead person awoke, they could ring the bell and someone would come and dig them up. There are cases where apparent corpses are found very much alive in the morgue, the catalepsy or other moribund state (thank you to my friendly neighborhood pathologist for that information) having reversed itself apparently just in time. While such recoveries might be miraculous in the eyes of the family and friends (and truly, they may be in a way we don’t understand), it isn’t quite the same as seeing someone who has been visibly and malodorously decomposing actually rising from the slab and walking out of their grave.
I wonder what Jesus was feeling when he stood by the tomb of Lazarus weeping. Why would he weep when just a moment or two later he asked that the stone at the entrance to the tomb be removed and he called for his friend to come out? I wonder, was he seeing a flash of his own death and entombment? And the being summoned from the grave?
There are times when we stand by the graves of loved ones and weep, wishing so hard that we could call them forth again, even if for a brief time, but we know we can’t. Perhaps, though, we can feel kinship with Jesus standing at the closed tomb of his friend Lazarus, maybe in a way the as close a kinship we can have with him as he was on this earth. We can have Gethsemane moments, share the joy of table fellowship, enjoy a good party and stand (or sit) in pain at the suffering of one we hold dear, but our feelings and emotions are out own to deal with, just as only we can know what pain feels like to us — and how much of it we can bear. Still, we can empathize and, to an extent, share the pain of others. Perhaps that is part of what Jesus felt standing there and weeping. Perhaps it was a foreshadowing of things to come, who knows?
How could we accept the humanity of Jesus if we never saw him in very human moments, even moments just before he revealed his divinity?
And if someone only wanted to convince us of his divinity, why add all too human details? Perhaps that is what makes the story of Jesus so believable — the details.