Honest Grief

Meditation on John 11

Mary and Martha prayed. They sent their message to Jesus, “Lord, he whom you love is ill”, and implied in that message is a request: “… so come save him!” That’s clear in the frank statements of both sisters upon first seeing Jesus after Lazarus dies: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” They knew Jesus, they knew He had healed others, and they knew they had a special bond of friendship with Him, so they prayed in faith for Jesus to come heal their brother.

But He didn’t come.

You can imagine the thoughts that must have been running through the heads of Mary and Martha. Did they place too much faith in Jesus? Perhaps He isn’t really as powerful as they believed He was. Lazarus and his sisters were Jesus’ friends, right? Or did He not really care about them as much as they thought? Is Lazarus not he whom Jesus loved after all? Does He really love Mary and Martha?

Maybe it’s easy for you to imagine because for you, like me, these questions and doubts are too familiar. We have all, or will all at some time, experience loss and grief of some kind. We’re all gonna die, and we’re all going to lose loved ones to death. And when we go through this, we are often left with confusion. Does Jesus love us, because if He does… why this? He promised to hear our prayers, to grant our requests, right?

It’s important for us to understand, though, that these weren’t the private or bitter thoughts of Mary and Martha. They give us an example of how to walk through grief in a way that is both honest and faithful. The sisters both tell Jesus boldly that they know He could have prevented Lazarus’ death, and didn’t. Mary weeps at His feet. But Jesus doesn’t rebuke them. Rather, He receives their complaints and enters into their grief alongside them. If the sisters had let their grief and doubt drive them away from Jesus, if they had become embittered against Him, it would be a different story. But they both, in faith, let their grief and questions drive them to Jesus. 

Of course, Jesus did hear the prayer of Mary and Martha. And He did act. But He didn’t act in the way they wanted. He answered their prayer, but rather than giving them only what they asked, He gave them something better. Jesus is all-wise. In the face of impending death, we ask for things to remain the same- stop death, let our loved ones remain. And of course we do- our finite eyes cannot see what God can see. Jesus gives Mary and Martha something better than what they ask: He lets His servant pass through death in order to be transformed in resurrection. Jesus is “the resurrection and the life.” He doesn’t simply preserve life, He transforms. He brings new, glorified life. 

Jesus doesn’t only bring this resurrection life to Lazarus, though. Jesus brings new life to the sisters, as well, through their grief. John wants us to know at the outset of this story that “It was Mary who anointed the Lord with ointment and wiped His feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was ill.” But Mary’s anointing of Jesus hasn’t happened yet- that comes in the next chapter, chapter 12. Mary would anoint Jesus with ointment in worship, John wants us to understand, but not until she has anointed His feet with her tears in grief. Passing through grief, and unexpected joy, was necessary for Mary’s transformation as a disciple of Jesus. And we know by faith that our trials, our pain, our grief, works toward this same end. Jesus hears us. Jesus loves us. And He is giving us more than we can ask or think. Through grief and death, He transforms us into disciples who bear the image of a Lord who glories in laying down His life.

Advertisements

Collect for Ash Wednesday

Almighty and everlasting God, who hatest nothing that thou hast made and dost forgive the sins of all them that are penitent; Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins, and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of thee, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

-Book of Common Prayer, 1662