Since February 1, I have either been an officiant of, or participated in, 5 rites of burial or celebrations of life. Late this afternoon, we will receive the broken and battered body of a young woman whose children have been part of our reading program, who were baptized here. Last week, her spouse put a gun to her head and pulled the trigger. And Jesus wept.
The three wonderful St Ambrose ladies I was privileged to bury died after lives lived well, good lives raising children, serving, growing in faith, especially loving dearly and passionately. E. and M., died too young, and especially M., died with a violence too terrible to be able to contemplate for any length of time without getting crazy angry. Earlier this week, several women of el Centro who meet regularly for a time of prayer and planning time sat and asked ourselves, “where was Jesus for M.?”. It was so important to exclaim, like Martha, “Lord, if you had been here our sister would not have died”. That gave word and voice to the desolation, the utter impossibility of comprehending and making our peace with what had happened.
On Thursday afternoon, F, the father of the two older girls came into this very space with S who is 10, and A who is 6. He had asked Diana, Marlene, Alejandra and I, along with the therapist that provides free counseling in our community, to keep him and his girls company as he told his girls that their mother had died. We watched bewilderment and overwhelming pain crumble the faces of those two little girls. And Jesus wept. Jesus wept for the senselessness of that death, for every victim of domestic violence who lives waiting for the other shoe to drop, whose heart and soul dies just a little each day that she or he is demeaned, or hurt, or killed. Jesus weeps.
During my ministry as a priest of the church, I have seen plenty of death, and most of the time, I have grieved and also been consoled by the truth that death arrives for all of us, I find dignity in having come to believe what someone once said, that our lives are all about learning how to die. I have lost much of the fear I once harbored. There has been sadness but not desperation in the goodbyes we have said to so many of our dear friends from the original membership of St Ambrose, even in the short time I have been a part of this community. And I have come to understand that if I feel desperation in my ministry, it is desperation that we sell life too short, that we give in to half-truths, easy answers and superficial relationships that that rob us of the life-giving grace that is most especially available to us when we live authentic lives open to the fullness of our humanity.
On Thursday, A, S, and F entered into the valley of the shadow of death and also, found themselves beside the still, deep, living waters of goodness and mercy. After a long time of the rawest, most heart breaking grief imaginable, I watched the two little girls start finding their way back into life. They wanted to engage the women F. had asked to stay in the church. We had lit the paschal candle before they came into this space and when it was time, I lit a small votive candle for each girl. Together we remembered that on the day of their baptism, each of them received the light of Christ that reminds us that death is never, ever, stronger than the love of God.
We talked about how, when they get very sad, which they will often in the days ahead, they can ask a grownup to light their candle and as they look at the beautiful flame, they can remember that even though their Mami’s body was too hurt to be able to keep working, the light of her life, of her love for her daughters, her goodness, will never go out.
A and S had been baptized here at St Ambrose and they remembered that we had first talked about these things when Diana and I prepared them for their baptism. Tonight, we will receive M in this same space and the community who cared for her will find consolation in each other’s company and the paschal candle will shine strong and bright and beautiful next to her casket.
There is much about resurrection I don’t understand with my mind and at best, my heart sees only very dimly. What I know is this: in the meantime, what I believe in my very body is that none of that promise makes sense in the absence of a community of faith. In today’s Gospel, it was Jesus who raised Lazarus from the dead. That is stated clearly and unequivocally, but listen carefully to the reading and you are reminded that immediately, Jesus turns to the people with him and doesn’t suggest, doesn’t ask, doesn’t recommend. He orders—unbind him. Let him go. He doesn’t single out the most righteous or his favorite, the one who most believes or prays best. Unbind him. That’s our work. That’s our ministry. That’s our mission.
For Lazarus to find the fulness of life once again, he needs his whole community. Without the community, not even our Lord’s work is complete. As I move on to talk about the meeting we had yesterday, I ask you to remember that we, like Martha and Mary, have it in us to say “Yes Lord, I believe” even in the darkest, bleakest moments of our lives, and to remember as well that even in those moments, Jesus says to us, through your tears, through your grief, through your despair, you will have the strength to do what it takes to unbind, let go, liberate. That is your vocation.