You can’t really grasp the meaning of life until you’ve honestly faced death. That’s not to say that you have to endure a near-death experience like combat, a car crash, or a heart attack before you understand what life is all about. Rather, you come to see what really makes life worth living when you feel your mortality in your very bones.
For some people, navigating life in a time of plague—during this COVID-19 pandemic—has brought with it more than fear of infection. In disrupting our normal routines, spending time alone, and working to protect loved ones from infection, some of us have claimed our own finitude.
Before the pandemic, plenty of people could blithely say, “People die.” Death is a distant reality. One day death will intrude upon your life and that will be that. But there’s no point in dwelling on it right now. Enjoy life while you can and put the Grim Reaper out of your mind.
By contrast, some of us now feel in our very gut, “Someday I will die.” Death is no intrusion. It’s a part of this life’s very fabric. My life’s very fabric. Paradoxically, when we acknowledge the inevitability of our own death, we really begin to live. And that is precisely what Jesus meant to teach us when he raised Lazarus from the dead.
Lazarus and his sisters—Mary and Martha—shared a close and tender friendship with Jesus. And yet when Jesus received news that Lazarus was desperately ill, he delayed in coming. The miracle-working healer purposely waited until his friend had died to show up.
His disciples were confused by his response. Mary and Martha were hurt and disappointed. Jesus himself wept.
Standing at the cave serving as his friend’s tomb, Jesus told bystanders to roll away the stone sealing its entrance. He said, “Lazarus, come out!” Dead for some four days, Lazarus staggered out of the cave. Jesus ordered those nearby to remove the cloths with which his corpse had been wrapped.
As miracles go, this one was a doozy. Even people unfamiliar with the Bible have probably heard something about it. But we will miss the lesson conveyed by that miracle if we think of the raising of Lazarus as a one-time event, a divine intervention in the natural course of things.
Instead, I invite you to see the raising of Lazarus as a revelation of what it means for a mortal to be in relationship with God. We die. God raises us to new life. Or, more precisely, Christ dwells in us and we dwell in Christ. In Christ, God is sharing the divine life itself with us.
But being raised from the dead is more that a mere reboot. In this life, we will die again and again, tumble into one grave after another. And through our union with God, each of these deaths becomes the birth place of a new, broader, richer life. To live—to truly live—is to die to an old relationship with God in order to grow into a deeper union with the God who loves us.
You cannot raise yourself from the dead. Resurrection is not a do-it-yourself job. Jesus raised Lazarus. God raised Jesus on the third day. Resurrection emerges from our ongoing relationship with God.
Strictly speaking, we are utterly powerless over death. We go down to the dust, like it or not. But Jesus teaches us that God breathes life into dust. Dust like you and me.