Updated: Apr 2
The first funeral that I attended for someone that I knew was for my grandmother when I was 10 or 11, and I remember that I didn’t cry at first. But when my aunt got up to give the eulogy, she talked about my grandmother’s passing in such a way that I was able to realize for the first time just how huge and monumental this moment was, how great a hole was being left in our lives, how much everything would change. That’s when I started to sob.
I was a pretty sensitive kid, but up until that point, there had been so much going on with
relatives coming into town, viewings to attend, and the sheer novelty of everything that I hadn’t really had time to grapple with the grief of my grandmother’s passing. But in that moment of community, in that moment of shared mourning, I was able to feel the full weight of the grief, to see the valley of bones that lay before me, to understand the depth of my grandmother’s absence. It was also in that context of sharing and community that I was able to start the long and difficult process of healing from that grief.
Now, we have to be really careful about how much of ourselves we read into Scripture. Jesus
lived 2000 years ago, in a different time, in a different culture, and for all of the universality of The Bible, we are better equipped to meet God in its pages if we are respectful of its context and foreignness. At the same time, there is something so fundamentally human about the moment that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the second person of the Trinity, breaks down in tears when he meets his friends on the road into Bethany.
It’s an especially striking story for John’s Gospel, where the author is careful to preserve the
divinity and distance of Christ. His telling begins with the big picture by orienting the incarnation in the cosmos and the Creation story. And John’s Jesus is kind of aloof. He often speaks in these circular, seemingly contradictory sentences, like we have in today’s Gospel. It’s easy to see in today’s reading why the disciples are confused all the time. Is Lazarus dead or sleeping? Is he getting better? Who can tell from the way Jesus talks at the beginning of today’s reading? And, yet for all of that seeming aloofness, for all of Jesus’ foreknowledge of the miracle to come, when Mary comes out to meet Jesus on the road weeping over her brother, when Jesus sees the community mourning for the loss, Jesus begins to weep over his lost friend alongside of them, taking part in the community, coming together with those who knew Lazarus, weeping with them over a world that seems fundamentally and irreversibly changed by loss.
It seems that Jesus is able to feel in that moment the full loss of his friend, to be fully human
alongside of his full divinity, even when he knows that resuscitation and new life is just around the corner. This tells us something important about God and the nature of Grief. Grief is not a barrier to resurrection. Grief is the pathway to new life.
That’s important to recognize because, in general, many white Americans are pretty bad at
grief. It’s part of this inherited culture of Northern European, stiff-upper-lip that has influenced a lot in the last 400 years or so. We often want to push up our sleeves, to tackle problems rather than “wallow.” We want to move on to what’s next, to push through the valley of bones as quickly as we can. Often it feels like grief gets relegated to a mere distraction in our drive for productivity and self-improvement. For white protestants, there is another layer to this. Even if our specific tradition doesn’t approach God in this way, there is often a message that to be in a life-giving relationship with Jesus means that we don’t or shouldn’t have negative emotions. We sometimes try to paper over real grief with the language of salvation or resurrection. The sentiment is often something like “they’ve gone to a better place,” said with all of the well-meaning empathy in the world, but
with a subtext that says we shouldn’t mourn the departed because we’ll see them again soon.
These kinds of messages are all over. They’re in big parts of the white American culture, and
they’re in our protestant faith tradition. That’s especially true in the evangelical corners that often dominate the conversation, but before we let ourselves entirely off the hook, we should acknowledge that it’s also part of the English culture that underlays the Anglican tradition and the Episcopal Church.
These messages can also be read in our Scripture if we’re not careful, and they all tell us subtly or not-so-subtly that we should never feel bad, we should not be grieving. We have to hide the bones of whatever is bothering us, get out of the valley, and get on with what’s next.
But that’s not what Jesus does. Jesus shows us that there is another way, that grief is not a
thing to be feared or dismissed. By stopping to grieve what has been lost before moving on to the new life that is promised, Jesus is showing us that it is okay to mourn what once was. Even when we know that what is coming is as good or better, it’s okay to miss what is lost for good. That's probably a message that bears repeating. It is okay to grieve what is lost, even if we know that there is new life coming. Jesus knew that he was going to raise Lazarus right then and there, and he still wept alongside the community when he was overcome by grief. He walked to the tomb and didn’t have to do anything special, the resuscitation had already happened. And yet Jesus still grieved what had been lost. Jesus did not hide from his grief, he was honest in it, honest in the fact that all would forever be changed despite the new life just moments away. Jesus grieved first, then he called Lazarus out of the tomb.
That honesty about our grief, facing up to what has been or will be lost, can help us to see how God is at work in the world—because we aren’t spending all of our energy trying to be okay. Our attention isn’t fixed on showing others that everything is fine, so we’re free to acknowledge the new life that God is putting into the world. To say it another way, facing up to our grief can help us to grow in our faith in our assurance that God is at work in our lives.
In fact, we see this same dynamic in the reading from Ezekiel. It is worth noting that God
brought Ezekiel to the Valley of Bones, that God led him all around the valley. God forced
Ezekiel face to face with what had been lost, with the death and decline of his community and way of life. It was only after Ezekiel had faced that loss that he was able to speak resuscitation into those bones. It was only after being honest about that loss that Ezekiel was able to prophesy resurrection. And we should note that it’s different for Ezekiel than it was for Jesus because Ezekiel is mortal, like us. So the resuscitation isn’t as straightforward as it is for Jesus. It’s a process, it goes in fits and starts. For us mortals, New Life doesn’t come about in one sentence but over time. By working with God and facing up to what was lost, Ezekiel was able to see and call forth the new life where once there was only a valley of dry bones.
So, I have a challenge for us in what remains of this season of Lent. Let us be honest with
ourselves and one another about the grief we are feeling—whether that’s grief because a
researcher has prophesied doom for the Church we love, whether it's for the ever clearer signs of climate change and the heartache that is sure to come, for the continued trauma of the pandemic and the losses we are only just now uncovering, or whether it’s a more personal loss. Let us tell each other about our grief. Let us face our grief head-on.
We are helped by the season of Lent itself, a season that encourages lament and grief ahead of resurrection. We are helped by the Church, a place of community where we can help each other in facing our grief and where we can support each other in bringing about resuscitation. We are helped by God, who is present and doing the work of new life, whether we can see it beyond our grief or not.
Let us prepare for the season of Easter, for the season of new life, by allowing God to move us through our own valleys of bones, as slowly as we might need to, to bring us to our tombs to grieve together in community, so that we are fully able to see the splendid and transforming Resurrection that God, surely, has in store for us.