Easter will forever be a deeply personal day for me. Thirteen years ago on Easter Sunday, I was congregated in the choir loft of the small United Methodist Church I grew up in. I had promised my Aunt Polly that though I was starting a new job that week at another church, I would sing Easter Sunday in the choir.
It was in that choir loft that had an encounter with Jesus that gave me new eyes.
For the previous seven months my Dad was fighting prostate cancer. After being misdiagnosed with a pinched nerve, a new doctor found the tumor. It was a large and fast moving tumor. After rounds of chemo and radiation, surgery, and pints and pints of morphine, Dad was getting weaker and weaker.
by Rev. Doug Sasser
When I was three, my mother died in an automobile accident. My father was a college president at the time, and the chairman of his board of directors advised him to get remarried as soon as possible, maintaining that the college needed a first lady and I needed a mother. Within a year of my mother’s death, my father began courting a woman he would soon marry. This marriage was not harmonious and I recall frequently hearing them arguing with each other. After seven years, their marriage ended in divorce.
Although many factors led to divorce, my father’s decision to get remarried so soon after being widowed may not have been healthy for him and his family. He was given very bad advice by his board chair. Psychologists agree grief involves a long emotional process. We must be able to sit with our pain and allow ourselves to heal slowly over time. When we try to pretend our grieving is done by starting a new relationship, this typically leads to emotional turmoil later.
Once, when I lost a loved one, my friends at church said to me, “This is probably not painful for you because of your faith in God.” The opposite is true. God made us and understands what goes on inside of us when we grieve.
The Jews understood no one should have to grieve alone. Others from the community surrounded Mary as she grieved the death of her brother Lazarus. Our text describes how the comforters all accompanied Mary as she went outside of the house to greet Jesus. Some of those gathered noticed Jesus weeping and acknowledged how much he loved this family. Jesus cries with them just as those who surrounded Mary had.
Others expect Jesus to offer a quick fix by saying, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” Martha takes on an accusatory tone when she says to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” We may ask ourselves why the Son of God stood around blubbering instead of raising Lazarus on the spot. Elsewhere in the scriptures Jesus healed people without even being physically present.
I believe Jesus responded the way he did because he understood the grieving process. Lazarus is not resurrected in this passage; he is resuscitated. He will die again someday. His family shall grieve his loss for longer than three days. Jesus understood grief is painful and it takes time. Through the miracle of the incarnation God became flesh in the form of Jesus Christ. Jesus took on humanity in all of its intricacies. He knew what it meant to feel pain, sorrow and grief. Jesus is showing Lazarus’ family how to grieve.
During the season of Lent this is especially evident to us. Through the scriptures we make the trek down the mountain with Jesus and the three disciples on Transfiguration Sunday. Then we make the journey with Jesus and the disciples as they travel to Jerusalem. Along the way we stop as Jesus cries over the city of Jerusalem. Tension builds as Jesus confronts his enemies after turning over the tables of the money changers in the Temple. A bittersweet mood hangs over Jesus and the disciples during the Last Supper. Jesus is deserted in the garden of Gethsemane when those who vowed to defend him to the death an hour earlier run under the cover of darkness. While on the cross Jesus expresses the ultimate feelings of rejection when he confesses feeling abandoned by God. Even after Jesus died on the cross the scripture describes how some disciples hide behind locked doors for fear of Jesus’ enemies. Other disciples expressed their bewilderment over the death of Jesus with a “stranger” they met on the road to Emmaus.
If we are too quick to rush past the sadness of Holy Week and jump to the empty tomb we are not being true to the witness of the scripture. Also we are not being true to ourselves as humans. We cannot appreciate the joy and amazement of Easter morning if we have not experienced the events of Holy Week. Perhaps this is what Jesus was trying to teach Mary and Martha. Before new life can be celebrated, mourning must occur. Join those who surrounded Mary in this text. Allow yourself to grieve, feel pain and cry. When we allow ourselves space and time to feel pain, we can properly heal. Jesus Christ, who sits with us and cries with us, is also the one who will raise us to new life.
Rev. Doug Sasser serves the Franklin Charge on the Danville District of the Virginia United Methodist Church.
Rev. Lindsey Baynham is the Associate Pastor at Fairfax United Methodist Church. Lindsey blogs at Words of My Mouth.
There are certain times in the year where I audibly cry out, “Already?!?” And one that perhaps bothers me more than others is in November. Right before Thanksgiving, there is a shift in stores—it seems that overnight all remnants of pumpkins and turkeys are replaced with snowmen and stockings. The shelves are filled with potential presents for loved ones and the deals are posted in every window. Even the music changes! You find yourself humming familiar tunes as you pace the aisles, get your car worked on or wait in line at the DMV. There is a visible change and I would argue a change within when the turkey and stuffing are behind us that is contagious as we look to Christmas.
But I believe that the change is too sudden. We too often skip over a time of waiting and anticipation to look to the presents or what I would call the hoopla of Christmas. We miss out on an opportunity to slow down and wait. Wait with expectant hearts for the Christ that comes in the most unexpected way; as a baby. We wait with excited spirits for a young virgin girl to give birth in a society that would shame her for not being married yet. And we wait alongside others—hoping in Emmanuel, who is God with us.
Just before our passage, Mary has encountered an angel, telling her that she will bear the Son of God. She responds as I think many would, “ How will this happen?” (Luke 1:34 CEB). How will this young girl take on the responsibility that has been given to her? How will she overcome the pressures of being unmarried in her ancient society? And what has she done to deserve this honor? So many questions it seems are left to be answered and the angel replies with confidence and concludes by saying, “Nothing is impossible with God” (Luke 1:37 NRSV). And so the angel leaves her and the young woman must wait…but she will not sit with this news alone, she goes to visit her cousin Elizabeth who we learn in this chapter is also pregnant.
Elizabeth’s very being is altered and changed at Mary’s greeting! The Holy Spirit moves within Elizabeth and she recognizes that her cousin has been blessed to carry the Son of God. And Elizabeth’s words of praise and thanksgiving are contagious—giving joy to Mary.
And in verses 46-55 we hear Mary’s words of joy, of excitement, of remembrance and of promise. Mary trusts that God will take what seems impossible and make it into something incredible. She revisits the covenants made with her forefathers and knows that a new covenant has been made with the child that rests in her womb.
Our being during the time of Advent is one that is gradual, moving ever so slightly from person to person, home to home, church to church. In this season we wait to catch what is going around—the joy of Christ coming to earth, a joy that is peaked by waiting for the baby Messiah. We look to Christ’s birth with wonder and thankfulness for the time to prepare. And we look to Christmas with a joy that is contagious, spreading from heart to heart.