Lord, if you had been here…
When Lazarus dies, his sisters, Martha and Mary, are overwhelmed with sadness, confusion and probably not a little anger. A few days before Lazarus’ death, Martha and Mary sent messengers to Jesus telling Him, “Lord, behold, he whom you love is sick.” Martha and Mary reached out to Jesus because they believed in Him. They believed in His love for them and their brother. They believed that Jesus not only could, but would heal their brother; and so they reached out to Jesus. And Jesus heard their cry for help. He received the message but then waited two days before beginning the two or three day journey to Bethany.
Jesus waited, and Lazarus died.
For Martha and Mary, Jesus did not show up—not when they needed Him, not when they expected Him, not when they believed he would and should have shown up, not in time to keep their brother Lazarus from dying. For Martha and Mary, Jesus shows up four days too late. So when they do see Jesus the first words out of the mouths of Martha and Mary, the first words they say to him—and they meet him separately, yet say exactly the same thing—their first words to Jesus are a rebuke, their first words are telling Jesus what He did wrong: “Lord,” they say, “If you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
The Gospels tell us that Lazarus was a friend of Christ. Mary had poured out costly perfume on Jesus’ feet and wiped them with her hair. Martha had served meals for Jesus and his disciples. They had seen Jesus heal the sick. They had seen him heal multitudes of strangers. All who came to Him, He healed. And yet it seemed to Martha and Mary that in their hour of greatest need, their friend Jesus, whom they loved and served, their friend Jesus wouldn’t come and heal their brother. He wouldn’t come on time. He wouldn’t hurry up. He would just let their brother die. “Lord, if you had been here,” they cried.
Many devout followers of Christ have had experiences similar to Martha and Mary’s. It seems always to be the devout followers of Christ who suffer the most. Of course death—in all of its forms: sudden loss of life; slow, lingering illness; dementia; moral failure; betrayal; misunderstanding; irrational hatred; sudden poverty—death in all of its forms brings suffering and sorrow to everyone and anyone it touches. However, for those who believe, for those who believe in the God who does wonders, those who believe in miracles, who know that God can do whatever He pleases, for these there is a unique kind of suffering associated with deaths. “Lord,” we cry, “where are you?” “Lord, if you had been here….” For those who believe, deaths are often accompanied by a strong sense of the absence of God.
This is not always the experience of devout believers. That is, many devout believers have experienced a profound sense of the nearness of God in the face of deaths of various kinds. I, too, have experienced this inexplicable comfort in the face of tragedy. Yet I have also tasted of the deeply troubling sorrow of Martha and Mary. This is a sorrow compounded by sorrow. Not only is there the loss and pain of death with its myriad of manifestations, but there is the loss or failure of faith. God has not done what you believed, what you knew so confidently, He would do. “I did my part—what more could I have done?” We wrack our brains: “What is it? What is it? Surely, I can’t have been so wrong. Have I offended God? Have I made a mistake? God, what did I do wrong?! Lord, where are you?! Lord, if you had been here….”
When Martha confronts Jesus, she enters into dialog, into a kind of negotiation: “But even now,” she says, “I know that whatever you ask of God, God will give you.” But Jesus redirects her attention toward the resurrection. Martha imagines only the future: “Yes, yes, someday, at the end of the world, my brother will rise again.” But Jesus corrects her, corrects both her tense and her understanding of what (or rather who) resurrection is: “I am the resurrection and the life….”
Mary, on the other hand, when she confronts Jesus, is different. After her initial words, “Lord, if you had been here…” Mary only weeps. She has no more words. Mary weeps and those who are with her weep and Jesus weeps.
We know from the Gospel that Jesus does raise Lazarus from the dead. The hymns of the Church teach us that this is to be understood as a confirmation of the universal resurrection. In Christ, everyone and everything is raised, even though in time this may yet be a future event. Christ is the resurrection and the life, even though we still must pass through time, through the confused words of Martha and the tears of Mary, through what the Psalmist calls the Valley of Tears.
I have a german shepherd who loves to go for walks. She walks on leash very well—so long as she doesn’t think she knows where we are going. Once she thinks she knows, then she starts to pull on the lead. Then I have to change direction. I have to train her to pay attention to me, not to where she thinks we are going.
Jesus invites us to walk with Him. He amazes us with His signs and wonders, with His love and with the experience of His nearness. Yet instead of paying attention to Him, we strain our focus to where we think God is going. We have visions and dreams that we are sure are His, that we are sure are pointing us to where God is going. We deduce principles and guidelines. We teach others where we think God is going (and how to help God get there). We begin to interpret every drop of Grace as a sign confirming what we think we already know—rather than as a sign pointing back to the Giver, as a sign calling us to attend to our Master.
And then the inevitable happens. Death surprises us. Failure sneaks up on us. People disappoint us. Illness attacks us. A temptation overwhelms us. The dream fades, the vision crumbles. “Lord, if you had been here….” But the Lord is where He has always been—in our hearts. Our attention, however, has wandered. Like my energetic german shepherd, my attention has strained to where I thought we were going, and I have stopped paying attention to my Master, to my heart, to the place where my Master abides. Some of us, the wise (I suppose) weep. There are no words. Some of us, like Mary, have no words and only weep. Some of us, like me, will have to argue a little, will have to pull at the leash until in brokenness we too run out of words and collapse in tears at Jesus’ feet: “A broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”
The earliest Christians referred to our faith as “the Way.” The Way refers not to a particular path we may walk or a particular place we are going, but to a particular way we walk whatever path we find ourselves on. We walk in this Valley of Tears with our attention not on the destination or even on the road, we walk with our attention on the One who abides in our hearts by faith. Yes, there are paths and there are destinations and there are things we do in life—but none of this is where our attention belongs. In fact, it has been said by many that it is the very unpredictability, the very disappointing and confusing nature of our walk through this world that forces us to attend to “the one thing that is needful.”
Some of us, the more stiff necked (I suppose), may need more disappointment to turn our gaze away from what is outside us, to teach us to see within us what cannot be seen outside us. Jesus is the resurrection—even when death seems to be winning. Jesus is the resurrection—even when our loved ones don’t understand. Jesus is the resurrection—even when the Church seems deeply broken. Jesus is the resurrection and the life. When we believe in Him, though we die (and die we will) yet we shall live. And as we live and believe in Him, we shall never die. A divine mystery: We believe and we die and we live and we believe and we never die. It is a mystery only known in the heart, where Christ lives, where both life and death teach us to focus our attention.