Christology is the study of Christ. No book in the Bible has a higher Christology than John. His persistent focus on divinity is evident throughout: rather than being born to Mother Mary, Christ existed eternally; upon meeting someone for the first time, he knows their thoughts before they do; on the cross, he freely gives his life away instead of having it taken. Although he located in time and space, Christ hovers just above the fray in his perfection, his feet never quite touching the ground of embodied experience.
Except in chapter 11. At the zenith of his narrative, John tells a story with an uncharacteristically low Christology. Jesus has gotten word that one of his best friends is unresponsive. When he arrives in Bethany a few days later, Mary and Martha meet him outside the cemetery with the news: Lazarus is dead. Through the iron gates and past the headstones adorned with plastic bouquets, down to where the temporary green tent stands over a hole in the ground, Jesus falls to his knees, overcome with loss.
In the shortest and, arguably, most profound verse in scripture, Jesus wept. With such emphasis on Christ everywhere else, why does John include this story about Jesus in his Gospel?
John 11:32-44 When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus began to weep. So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”
To give us permission to be human.
God’s miracles require our participation.
To invite anyone closeted to come out.
There’s one call you dread most as a chaplain. I was doing an overnight shift that Friday, the only minister in the entire level four trauma hospital. The beeping vibration of the pager beside my pillow woke me, and I stumbled over to the phone and called the flashing number back. “Pediatric Emergency Room,” the voice on the other end said, “Come immediately.” I tucked in my shirt, affixed my I.D. badge, and tried to look presentable at 3 in the morning. Arriving at the children’s hospital across the street, I walked through the darkened pastel waiting room with the animal mural on one wall and by the garage where the ambulance still had its lights flashing. Half a dozen doctors and twice as many nurses huddled over someone’s child in the operating room. There was a fury of activity until there wasn’t. The surgeon stared at the clock on the wall and pronounced the time of death. A few muffled words of condolence were extended, and then, only a few weeks into the job, I was left to take over. Before opening the door to the private family room, I could hear a violent commotion, primal shrieks, and anguished pauses. Inside, the aunts and cousins were sitting shell-shocked, their bodies numb to the news. But the mother was face down on the floor, head underneath an end table, arms and legs flailing, colliding with furniture and drywall, convulsing and screaming, “My son! My son! My son!” Hearing the uproar, a hospital administrator barged in and started giving the bereaved orders, “Get up off the floor? Sit in the chair! Drink some water! Calm down! You’ve got to control yourself!” Overwhelmed by the situation and unsure of my role after only a few weeks on the job, I remembered from seminary that pastoral care, at its most basic, is empathizing with suffering. Cheek to the linoleum, arms by my side, I laid down beside the mother as she wailed.
While I never had a chance to process what happened with that administrator, I wonder if she, like so many of us, was unknowingly influenced by Stoicism. We remember from Greek history, the Stoics believed a blank stare and stiff upper lip was the only response to hardship. Reserve your reactions, avoid your feelings, submit to detaching from every situation.
When Jesus showed up at Lazarus’ tomb, he was anything but stoic. Instead, with his knees quivering, stomach piercing, nose running, eyes blurring, face buried in his hands, he falls apart. John includes this story because, here more than any other place in the entire Bible, Jesus normalizes grief. He gives us permission to get emotional, to give witness to our pain in the most unhinged of ways.
As long as sorrow remains, the Church doesn’t need any more Christians, students of Christ refusing to emote on their way to heaven. Rather, the Gospel calls us to be followers of Jesus, practitioners who love so hard, with such intimacy and vulnerability, that our hearts will break a billion times over.
Whoever the Lazarus is you’ve lost, your lament is welcome here.