Reflection on John 11.1-45 (Lent)

Jesus began to weep.

The Victorians knew how to put on a ‘good’ funeral. Following the death of Prince Albert, on 14 December 1861, Queen Victoria gave us a whole new model for intense grief. For the next forty years she lived in perpetual mourning, and she insisted that those around her should adopt the same attitude.

When Victoria died, on 22 January 1901, the world mourned her passing and celebrated her longevity as a reigning monarch. The world also moved, for a brief time, into a new, more optimistic age. However, the world’s acquaintance with the tragedy of death would soon be renewed. International conflicts and a pandemic would set a new standard for widespread grief before the new century had really established itself. Unexpected and undeserved death stalked the world.

Another century has passed and not much seems to have changed. We continue to live through times of senseless conflict and bloodshed, times of pandemic, and times of death brought upon by the horrors of poverty and starvation. However, something has changed … our attitudes to death, the ways in which we mark death.

It is my duty and my privilege to journey with many people in the immediate aftermath of the death of a loved one. As I step out on that journey I am often told that the funeral should be a ‘happy’ occasion, a time of rejoicing and thanksgiving. It is not unusual for those wishing to attend the funeral to be issued with a dress code: ‘nothing black’, only ‘bright’ colours to be worn! Whilst I do not believe it is stated explicitly, there is also the implied instruction: ‘Absolutely no tears!’

The rituals that surround a funeral should definitely give thanks for the life that has come to an end, and there should be rejoicing that our loved ones are now at peace in God’s nearer presence. But … no tears?!

The Victorians set a standard for mourning that was excessive, particularly in the light of the average short life expectancy, due to a lack of what we would call ‘modern medical intervention’. We have learnt not to focus on the negative alone. We have discovered that it is also right that we should offer praise and thanksgiving. But … have we gone too far by insisting on no tears?!

In today’s reading we are given a glimpse of Jesus’ humanity. As he stood before the tomb of his friend Lazarus, and despite knowing the miracle that was about to occur, we are told that: Jesus began to weep. So, why do we seek to suppress our feelings of sorrow when we find ourselves in the same place?

Jesus gave us a message of unconditional and unwavering love. When that bond of love is broken through death it is appropriate that we should, like Jesus, begin to weep. But, like Jesus, we should not remain in that dark place for ever; we should not bring our own lives to a grinding halt because a loved one has died. Rather, we should, after the tears, rejoice and give thanks for the hope and irrepressible joy of the resurrection.

In today’s reading we are given a foretaste of Christ’s victory over the grave. Today we can see the hope that lies at the heart of the Good News of Jesus Christ. So, whenever and why-ever the tears may flow, let us remember that Jesus himself began to weep, and then let us give thanks for and celebrate the eternal victory that lies before us.