Whatever message that goes out from our churches this weekend it will have little relevance unless it is set against the backdrop of the Corona Virus. A passage of scripture can be precisely that, a backdrop, against which something currently happening in our lives can be understood in a much broader light. Today’s Gospel, the Raising of Lazarus is one that we can easily associate with grief and loss and how we can resolve it. The topic of grief is particularly relevant in relation to this virus in so far as it primarily attacks the lungs. These are the organs that seem to be particularly vulnerable while coming to terms with any form of loss in our lives. How often have we seen instances of those recently bereaved having bronchial problems? It’s as if sorrow finds a home in our bodies and becomes something we need to get off our chest!
The medics tell us that it is mostly those with underlying conditions that are particularly vulnerable to the disease. Could it also be that unresolved grief is also an underlying condition. Unresolved grief is itself pandemic but it usually goes unrecognized. It may well be one of the big underlying conditions that leave us vulnerable. Society affords us just a few days to mourn a significant loss and after that very few ever give it mention. This leaves the sufferer feeling isolated and abandoned in their grief to the extent that it just gets locked away until circumstances are right for it to emerge.
From the Gospel story it becomes clear that both Mary and Martha are grieving deeply. Their faith has been shattered by their friend’s absence and apparent indifference when he chose to remain elsewhere when they needed him most. While they seem to meet him at slightly different times, what they say is similar. ‘If only you had been here our brother would not have died.’ A lot more is being said here than meets the eye. ‘If only’ carries the strongest possible emotions; regret and disappointment, veiled anger, betrayed trust and even of friendship broken beyond repair.
‘Where have you laid him?’ Jesus asks. They had taken the only option open to them at the time, Lazarus was buried and a stone had been placed over the tomb. That action is deeply symbolic in relation to what we tend to do both with grief along with other more painful and shameful realities of life; we chose not to talk about them; we opt not to give them an airing. So we bury them in our unconscious in the mistaken belief that out of sight out of mind. We place a stone over the entrance as a statement that we don’t want to go there and neither do we want anyone else to go there either. It’s just something unpleasant that has happened that we think we can put behind us and then struggle to get on with our lives. During a time of enforced isolation such as this, these very issues will inevitably rise to the surface. In the quiet all hell can break lose.
The problems with burying emotional issues is that we can only bury them alive and they can and do come back to haunt us. The past is never where we think we have left it rather it is more likely to be right where we are, only we fail to recognize that it is very much alive and well in the present and in all sorts of ways:
We find we can’t cope with silence for too long, we need background noise so the TV or radio doesn’t have an off button. We need to pray yet find it very difficult.
We find ourselves irritable and biting the noses off the ones we love.
We are doing more reacting from our past than relating in the present.
Our sleep is affected; our head feels as if it’s bursting with swirling thoughts that nowhere.
We begin to wonder why we are always so tired and drained of energy.
Gradually our day-to-day reality becomes more an existence than a life as we struggle to stay afloat and just keep up appearances.
The dark cloud of depression becomes ever more familiar.
A sense of hopelessness and emptiness begins to take over.
Fear and anxiety starts to rule our lives.
Eventually not just our emotional well-being is affected but our physical health may begin to deteriorate.
All of that can sound far too familiar, and even too close for comfort, but it is the truth of how our past may be affecting our present and in the light of Covid 19 how it could influence our future. Many are reluctant to admit to painful realities like grief; they hesitate to roll back the stone and so anti-depressants become the alternative where we no longer have to ask the big question, what am I actually depressing in my life? What am I not prepared to talk about; what am I trying to block out?
The command of Jesus is as clear today as it was 2000 years ago. ‘Roll back the stone’. If you want life; face the issue. Of course there will be a stench initially but that will clear. We don’t like facing up to things that we or our families may have buried for a lifetime or even much longer but in terms of the Gospel path it is the only way. Being born again means bringing what was in darkness out into the light.
Everything that is buried is more than a painful issue it is a bundle of energy that we need in order to be fully alive, and have our immune system working at optimum level. When our energy goes low where has it gone? It even takes great energy to keep energy buried. By not talking about the very things that make us human, like grief, which is part of our human condition, we become more and more isolated. Eventually, it’s not Lazarus that is buried, rather it is we who have locked ourselves away.
I would like to conclude with a few words from Archbishop Desmond TutU who has worked as part of the Justice and Peace Commission dealing with the painful past of South Africa. Before I do, let me say that until recent times our only way of dealing with the more painful and shameful realities of life was to bury, deny and not give them voice; to keep them firmly locked in the tomb. Such an approach is now understood to create far more problems than it ever tries to hide. This is what Desmond Tuto says about dealing with the past:
None of us have the power to say ‘Let bye gones be bye gones and hey presto they become by gones. Our common experience is just the opposite, that the past far from disappearing or lying down and being quiet is embarrassingly persistent and will return to haunt us unless it has been dealt with adequately. Unless we are prepared to look the beast in the eye we will find it returns to hold us hostage.