MEDITATION FOR THE PASSION OF OUR LORD JESUS CHRIST
Christ Church Cathedral, Montreal
Good Friday, 2018
What kind of vision do we bring to the cross? Do we look with eyes which see only death; a body hanging helpless and abandoned? A once living body now succumbed to death? Jesus’ life spent, do we now gather to grieve, and perhaps to tremble at the might of death? Yes, for a time. And if that is the extent of our vision, if all we can see is death, then we can go home after this service, perhaps to process our grief in time, but never really to move beyond the finality of this death. There is another vision, however, one which sees the cross transformed by the promises of God, and framed by abundant life. This is a transfigured vision which sees through the apparent finality of Christ’s death on the cross to behold the One who is “the resurrection and the life,” the One who holds the death of Jesus in a loving, living, embrace. What I’m describing – it’s a bit like contemplating an icon, really. Looking at the cross and seeing only the presence of death is like looking at an icon and seeing only the painted image itself; perhaps its just a picture of a dead man. Looked upon with our vision transfigured, however, and the painting is transformed into a window into the divine life. God bursts through the matter of the image and reaches out to us in love. Thus, whatever is depicted on the surface is always framed and held by the living God. Jesus is the one who transfigures our vision when we his glory is revealed to us, as happens in the story of the raising of Lazarus.
When Jesus comes to Bethany, he comes to transfigure the vision of a community who only have eyes for death. Lazarus’ death is an irretrievable loss for them. John’s text conveys this sense of profound loss through words tinged with fear, despair, and anger: “Lord if you had been here my brother would not have died,” is the cry both of Martha and of Mary. Lazarus has died. Could not Jesus have prevented this death? “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” say some of the onlookers. Again, could not Jesus have prevented this death; in fact was it not his responsibility to keep people alive, especially those close to him? I think also of the criminal who in Luke’s gospel who cries: “he saved others: let him save himself!” Each of these statements are symptomatic of a vision of life as hemmed in by death. What these voices want of Jesus is for him to stave off death; there is no sense that Jesus might be able to undo death. This is like contemplating the cross and seeing only a dead body, or looking at an icon and seeing nothing beyond what is readily apparent. This is a vision with a dead end, as it were.
When Jesus comes to Bethany, he comes to transfigure the vision of a community who only have eyes for death. “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me, will never die. Do you believe this?” In Bethany, as those around him weep, Jesus “greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved,” asks “where have you laid him?” To which they reply, “Lord, come and see,” that is, come and see the dead man so that you may mourn him too. Their sight remains fixated on death and loss, not recognizing the presence of life in their midst. When they do recognize Jesus as the resurrection and the life, it is not until Jesus cries out with a loud voice “Lazarus, come out:” then their vision is transfigured. Like the transfiguration on the mountaintop, God’s glory is made manifest on earth and in doing so alters the perception of those who are witness to it. As Jesus says “unbind him, and let him go,” it is as if the vision which once saw only life hemmed in by death has its blinders removed, and sees life bursting forth from behind the thin veneer of death. Even where there is apparent death, the life which sustains all things is lying just behind the surface.
In John’s gospel, this manifestation of God as the resurrection and the life in the raising of Lazarus triggers the plot to kill Jesus. The presence of One whose life cannot be contained by death threatens the power structures of the world, whose greatest weapon lies in the extinguishing of life. What can the powers of this world do against one who is lord of life and of death?
“I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me, will never die. Do you believe this?” Can we contemplate Christ on the cross and see that “even here, Jesus is the resurrection and the life?” Are we able to see, with our vision transfigured, a vision of a death framed and held by abundant and eternal life? Do we trust the promise of Jesus that even where there is death, life is always present? We may just have to gaze through the cross, as if it were a window into the heart of God, to see the eternal glory and life-giving radiance of God; to see that, even this death cannot contain the life which bursts forth from God’s very being.