April 06, 2011

Snorting at Death

by Debra Dean Murphy
Fifth Sunday in Lent
Ezekiel 37:1-14; Psalm 130; Romans 8:1-11; John 11:1-45

The texts for this Sunday leave no doubt about where the Lenten journey will end. A week before Palm/Passion Sunday and the start of Holy Week and it’s not the scent of spring flowers in the air but death--as shrouded, four-days-dead Lazarus is stinking up the place. Dry bones are on Ezekiel’s mind—brittle, rattling remains beyond the stages of rot and stench. “Our hope is lost,” the people in exile say, “we are cut off completely” (37:11). The Psalm, too, the de Profundis, commonly read at funerals or included in settings of the requiem mass, acknowledges the depths of human despair and hopelessness.

These are not unfamiliar themes to us. This has been a springtime of death—tens of thousands who have perished in Japan; violent deaths on the streets of Libya, Afghanistan, Congo, and Ivory Coast—to name only a few of the world’s dark places haunted (and hunted, it seems) by death. So mortality is not mere metaphor here. This is about stinking corpses, dried up bones, prayers of anguish and desperation. This is where the Lenten journey will end.

When Jesus arrives at the home of Lazarus he finds that “many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother (11:19).” There is much weeping, as there usually is when a loved one dies. Some in the crowd were likely professional mourners whose job was to give dramatic, ritual expression to a family’s grief—vocalizations that would raise the emotional pitch of the gathering and provide cathartic release for the bereaved. It must have been quite a sound.

So much so that we learn that Jesus is “greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved” (11:33). The Greek, though, suggests something more primitive—animalistic, even (enebrimÄ“sato): that Jesus snorted like a horse. English translations generally miss this quality of character in Jesus as he makes his way through the crowd to the tomb of Lazarus: he is agitated, irritated, vexed.


We know that Jesus is not in despair at the death of his friend. The Jesus of John’s gospel knows all things—he knew that he would find Lazarus dead; he knew that he would call him forth and raise him up. Martha and Mary have shown great faith in the midst of their grief—he cannot feel sorry for them. It’s also unlikely that he pities the mourners whose emotions are for hire, not for real.

In John’s gospel, Jesus is Word, Bread, Light, Life. In John’s story of the raising of Lazarus he is “the resurrection and the life” (11:25). Death is undone—its stinking reality in a cave two miles outside of Jerusalem stirs Jesus’ passion; he is indignant in its presence; intolerant of its temporary power. He snorts like a horse and hot tears stream down his face. The stone is rolled away. Lazarus is called forth and raised up.

This dramatic story in John’s gospel prefigures, rather straightforwardly, Jesus’ own death, entombment, and resurrection. (Though Lazarus is not resurrected here—poor guy, he had to die again). This Lenten journey is leading toward death. There are more weeping women to come; a body to enshroud; a tomb to secure.

But death will not have the last word. On this Lord’s Day when the air is thick with the stench of death, we still acknowledge the “little Easter” that every Sunday is and we anticipate the great Feast of the Resurrection. Soon another stone will be rolled away and, snorting at death, the one who consoled a grieving sister with the words “I am the resurrection and the life” will be called forth and raised up. And in his life we will find our own. Thanks be to God.


The Listening Hermit said...

A strong contextually grounded reflection. Thanks Debra

SpectrumES said...

"indignant at its presence" - thanks for this emotional descriptive response to death.