Beyond the Grave
Fr. Paul Scalia
March 8, 2008
"The one you love is ill" (Jn 11:3). If you or I received such a message, we would hasten to visit the one we love. We would want to provide him some solace and, in the case of a fatal illness, to be with him as he dies.
But when Our Lord receives this report about His friend Lazarus, He does not hasten. In fact, He delays. We know that Our Lord had a special affection for Lazarus and his sisters (cf. Jn 11:5). But, in one of the most curious lines of Scripture, we hear that when He learned that Lazarus was ill, "he remained for two days in the place where he was" (Jn 11:5).
During that time of delay, of course, Lazarus died and was buried. How then do we explain Our Lord's delay and seeming negligence? Is it not the failure to answer an urgent prayer?
Perhaps we can understand Our Lord's action — and seeming inaction — in terms of a teacher or instructor. A good teacher knows that he must draw his students beyond their abilities, beyond what they think they can do. He knows how to push them so that they accomplish more than they thought they could. If he does not challenge them, they will not grow. So also a coach pushes his athletes to the breaking point — and further — to make them faster and stronger. And this looks cruel. While the trainees think they can go no further, the instructor urges them on. As the students groan for rest, the teacher gives yet another assignment.
Our Lord deals in a similar way with Lazarus' sisters, Martha and Mary. His delay brings them further in their faith than they could have imagined. They already believe in Him, as their message indicates: "The one you love is ill." Their words carry an implicit prayer that Our Lord come and heal Lazarus, as He had so many others. As a result, His delay clearly disappoints them. When He finally arrives each says, "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died" (Jn 11:21, 32).
Notice, however, that Martha and Mary do not lose faith. Despite His inexplicable tardiness and the loss it has brought them, they continue to trust Him. Indeed, His delay does not break but stretches their faith. They believed already that Our Lord could heal Lazarus. His delay challenges them to believe that He can also raise Lazarus from the dead. They already trusted Him with the things of life; His delay brings them to trust beyond the grave. Thus Martha confidently says, "(E)ven now I know that whatever you ask of God, God will give you ... I have come to believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one who is coming into the world" (Jn 11:22, 27). Now she trusts even more than she did before.
"(W)hen he heard that (Lazarus) was ill, he remained for two days in the place where he was." Our Lord's delay, though seemingly callous and cruel, stretched Martha and Mary to trust Him even beyond the grave. "Even now," Martha says, indicating that she will continue to trust in any circumstance.
We should understand His seeming delays to our requests in the same light. If He seems slow to answer prayers, it is only so that we can trust Him more. If He seems to delay, it is only so that we can say, "Yes, Lord, even now I trust." If it seems, as it must have for Martha and Mary, that all is lost and He has ultimately failed to answer — even then we persevere in trust and grow in faith. Then we believe in His power to reach beyond the grave. At such moments, Martha's words of trust should be our own: "Even now."
Fr. Scalia is parochial vicar of St. Rita parish in Alexandria, VA.