One of my professors in seminary was fond of quoting the passage of John’s Gospel that provides our reading today. When chalk dust from a classroom blackboard smudged his black suit, when the dinner offerings in the Refectory were less than appetizing, or when he couldn’t find the keys to his rooms, he would say, “et lacrimatus est,” that is, “Jesus wept.” (Jn 11:35)
That professor wasn’t being sarcastic or flippant. In a lighthearted way, he was making an observation about human existence, namely, that we bear unjust burdens we would prefer to escape. His subtle sense of humor wasn’t appreciated by all, but I found him to be both witty and profound.
Jesus’ reaction to the death of his friend Lazarus was a similarly profound commentary on the experiences of suffering and loss. The Lectionary says that Jesus “became perturbed and deeply troubled.” (Jn 11:33) The Lectionary translation of this story doesn’t do justice to Jesus’ response to Lazarus’ death. The author of John’s Gospel wrote that Jesus let out a groan of indignation; he was offended and saddened by the death of Lazarus.
Jesus’ reaction is familiar to me. I am often offended and saddened by the careless, thoughtless standard of behavior that has become commonplace. I’ve even found myself repeating my seminary professor’s comment about unavoidably disappointing events: “et lacrimatus est.”
It is important for us to note the sincerity of Jesus’ lament over the death of Lazarus. From the beginning of this event, Jesus intended to resuscitate Lazarus. Before traveling to Bethany, Jesus said that Lazarus’ condition was “not to end in death, but is for the glory of God, that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” (Jn 11:4) Jesus knew beforehand that Lazarus would be restored to a normal life, but he still found his friend’s death to be tragic and burdensome.
Some Scripture commentators interpret Jesus’ reaction to the news of Lazarus’ death as proof of the existence of a true human nature in the person of Jesus. These commentators are quick to point to Jesus’ experience of grief and loss as indicative of his solidarity with us in our sufferings. I wouldn’t argue that Jesus’ response to Lazarus’ death is an accurate representation of human nature, but I would point out that it is also an accurate representation of God’s nature. God’s favor for God’s People is made manifest in God’s power poured out in Jesus’ healing miracles.
This description of God as caring and solicitous is entirely accurate but also susceptible to the overly sanguine tendencies of western culture. It is very popular to portray God’s favor in a purely emotional way that reduces God to an anthropomorphized projection of one’s imagination; not only is this an injustice to God, but it also presents an intractable problem for religious faith. If God is so caring and passionate about human suffering as to cry over one man’s death, why does God not intervene in some way to prevent suffering from occurring? This was the complaint voiced by Martha, the sister of the deceased in the Gospel story. She chided Jesus, saying, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” (Jn 11:21)
Martha isn’t the only person to make this complaint. This complaint is rather common in our culture, and it results from focusing on Jesus’ affect rather than his faith. Jesus was sincerely saddened by Lazarus’ death, despite knowing that he would raise Lazarus from the tomb. This is both a response to the complaint about God’s inaction in the face of tragedy and help to avoid the temptation to make such a complaint.
God cares profoundly about the sufferings experienced by the faithful, but faith won’t spare us from experiencing suffering and loss. Jesus is an example of this: he was offended and saddened by Lazarus’ death. If having faith in God won’t protect us from suffering, what value does it have? The answer is simple. Faith in God’s power to redeem allows us to endure tragedy without succumbing to bitterness or despair. This was the effect for Jesus, Martha, and Mary; they grieved Lazarus’ passing, expressed their indignation over his death, and showed one another the compassion that is the hallmark of God’s nature.
Faith doesn’t prevent our susceptibility to suffering but it does change the result that suffering produces in us; it affords us the opportunity to imitate God and, thereby, grow in holiness and mercy.
All too often, I find myself repeating my professor’s wry lament about the world, “et lacrimatus est.” Sadly, tragedy and disappointment are inescapable. It is not possible to avoid these, but it is possible to redeem their consequences, to change our way of thinking so that indignity is “not to end in death, but is for the glory of God, that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” (Jn 11:4) Unwavering faith in God allows us the possibility of responding to one another in the way God responds to us, by showing redeeming mercy.
Read and reread this excellent homily. Thank you for your insights and challenges.