Today we enter into Passiontide, the final part of Lent when we consider Jesus’ suffering and death. The coronavirus emergency we are now facing is all about the threat of suffering and death. The world is gripped by fear, and life is now not normal, not as we are used to living. Yet threats to human life have happened from time to time through the ages, none worse that the so-called Black Death of the 14th century, when around a third of the population of Europe died of bubonic plague. Coronavirus, thankfully, is not in the same league as that, though it is scary enough for those who are touched by it, and sadly it still comes with the threat of death.
In our Gospel reading today, we are also brought into the presence of death. It’s the story of the raising of Lazarus. One of the central characters in this story is Martha, the same Martha who is criticised earlier for complaining when Mary doesn’t help her with the housework, but instead sits listening to Jesus.
Martha later became the patron saint of the town of Tarascon in southern France. Legend has it that there she tamed with her prayers a dragon called Tarasque which had been terrifying the local people, killing many of them. She then led Tarasque into the town to demonstrate he was no danger anymore. Unfortunately, the people (like her sister Mary!) didn’t appreciate her work. They killed the dragon anyway. Martha then proceeded to preach to the people and convert them to Christianity, and they then regretted killing the beast and renamed their town Tarascon in honour of him.
While this story is rather fanciful, it does still have some meaning for us as we struggle to face up to some of the things that scare us today.
Martha plays a crucial role in the story of the raising of Lazarus, expressing a faith that deserves praise. She makes two powerful statements: First, she tells Jesus: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” Then, in verse 27, she makes an astonishing confession of faith: “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” This is just as impressive as the renowned confession of Peter (“You are the Christ, the Son of the living God”) which he makes at Caesarea Philippi, yet it is Peter who is remembered more (perhaps because he’s a man!). Martha says these things in the midst of her grief at losing her brother, which makes it all the more impressive.
Unlike Martha, we may not be able to tame a dragon, or indeed to express our faith as clearly and as powerfully as she does, yet here is an example of faith that can and should inspire us. Jesus, ‘the one coming into the world’, is both divine and human. He comes alongside us in our times of grief and in our fear. The result is that death is defeated. New life breaks out of the tomb. Lazarus, having gone through a period of isolation in the darkness of the cave where he was buried, is freed from all that was binding him, from death itself. Christians see this as a sign of what is to come in Jesus’ own death and resurrection. Yet it is also something we claim for ourselves. We, too, are promised release from all that may harm or hurt us, even if this promise may mean passing through death. The promise of new life is given freely to us, even when we are going through our own period of self-isolation, and the darkness of our inner fear. It is just in these moments that we may sense in prayer the presence of ‘the one who is to come’, encouraging us, and calling us as he called Lazarus, to come out of our tombs and live a new life in his presence.
Andrew Sinclair © Andrew JM Sinclair 2020