Someone I knew well died this Spring. Her death (from breast cancer) came twenty years after she was first diagnosed. But almost until the end, she refused to accept that death was pending. In her bed at home, she acknowledged the truth only a few hours before she stopped breathing, thereby making honest communication with her loved ones only briefly possible.
Until those final hours, she had believed that acknowledging the fact that the disease was a mortal one might in itself kill her. She felt that anyone who talked to her about death was introducing negativity into her system, threatening her life, weakening her hope. Words which acknowledged the disease seemed almost more dangerous to her than the disease itself. She felt that her survival depended on refusing to resign herself and, by extension, that she could actually keep herself alive through the sheer positive power of her denial. She insisted on more time. “I am not a statistic“, she would say. “I shall stand aside.“ Another ten years would do. That round figure in the mind would take from death any power it might have had to lean across her every day and skin cell, causing her heart to plunge to the depths whenever she returned to consciousness in the early mornings, or her fingers to search every few hours through the scarred surfaces of her body, for further signs of the spread of doom.
That resolution of hers made me think of Lazarus.
Jesus Christ, maybe under pressure from Mary and Martha, his good friends, brought their brother Lazarus back from the dead.
The heart lifts. Here’s a happy ending. A pale figure emerges from the tomb to screams of joy. He’s back. Life is cheated of its rules. Loss and pain are pushed back.
But who is this man who has returned to us ? How can he be the man we knew ?
Christ has probably fixed things so that the parts of Lazarus that had decomposed are more or less back in place and reasonably hygienic once again. But he can’t fix the fact that Lazarus now knows how it is to die. That is beyond even Christ to change or undo. Lazarus has crossed the frontier that separates the living from the dead. He got through, leaving everyone else behind. We don’t know how it was for him, but he knows, or half-knows. Perhaps he’ll tell us, or half tell us. Perhaps he won’t want to.
And the story hasn’t ended at all. In a while – and the Gospels don’t tell us when – Lazarus will have to die a second time. By now, Christ himself will be dead and will be sitting alongside His Father, the Creator. So this second time, there will be no return trip. Will Lazarus be sorry ? Or glad ?
Was he glad that first time, having made the exit which everyone dreads so utterly, to be forced back into the blinding light, for the temporary relief of his sisters, only to have to go through the whole business again, a short while later ?
Did he dance out of the tomb, wagging his fingers, saying Hi guys, I’m back, let’s
party ! – now I have a second chance to live awhile, (but also the obligation again to
We aren’t told how Lazarus lived his second wind and second death – in that new time granted him – how much more joy he experienced, how much more pain, how much human value there was in that meagre period of extra time made possible millennia ago.
Nor are we told about those crowds who followed Christ around, saying, Save me Lord, Heal me Lord, Bid me Rise up and Walk. We have to assume that He was only able to “rescue”a few of them. How did the majority feel ? Did they blame Him for failing to put things right for them ? Or did they blame themselves ? Or their Carers for failing to push them forward hard enough, or in the right way? What sort of lives did they lead, devoid of that interlude, that stay of execution, which Christ might have delivered to them ? In what spirit did they die ?