It was a day without hope, March 11, 2011. The 8.9-magnitude earthquake set off a devastating tsunami that washed away coastal cities in Northeastern Japan. Unfolding just 250 miles northeast of Tokyo was unspeakable devastation. Thousands of homes were destroyed. Roads were impassable, trains and buses, if not destroyed, were not running, and power remained down for weeks in the cold temperatures of early spring. Massive cargo ships and boats were swept on top of buildings as if they were miniature model toys and all around were scenes of desperation, as stranded survivors cried for help; buried alive under the rubble of what remained of their cities, communities and homes. Several districts were completely annihilated. Things couldn’t get any worse when the damage to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactor was discovered as radioactive material leaked out into surrounding areas and waterways. The death toll from the tsunami and earthquake, the strongest ever recorded in Japan, was over 18,000 lives. Over 300,000 were left homeless. This was a day without hope.
March 11, 2011 was a day without hope for me, as well, for in my own way, I was among this community of mourners. On this very day, as I learned of the devastation in Japan, I attended a loved one’s funeral. And while I did not watch my life wash away in a tsunami, I did lose the life I had lived for almost twenty years on this very day. Like the people of Sendai, and Ishinomaki, this day for me was a day without hope.
In the Christian calendar, Sunday marked the beginning of Holy Week. A week that begins with triumphal procession on Palm Sunday and ends in the hopeless silence of death on Holy Saturday. During this week, Christians around the world walk with Jesus towards the cross of crucifixion and a day without hope. We who live today have the benefit of knowing how this story ends—not in death and destruction, but in the resurrection of Jesus. But those who lived the story could not see what was ahead. Instead, they felt the despair of Gethsemane and the suffering of Golgotha. The same ones who welcomed Jesus into Jerusalem as the future King of Israel, watched in horror as his body was lowered from the cross—broken, beaten, and bled to death. Jesus would be buried and those who had loved him, walked with him and believed that he was the one who would deliver Israel, now had lost all hope.
Just prior to Jesus’s own death, John’s gospel account tells the story of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus.(1) Lazarus, the brother of Mary and Martha—and likely their main source of financial well-being and protection—had died. In fact, Mary and Martha had sent for Jesus prior to their brother’s death, but Jesus delayed coming to them. And now, Lazarus was dead. When Jesus arrived, Lazarus had been dead four days. Jewish belief taught that after three days the soul would leave the body and corruption would set in. After the third day, there was no hope of resuscitation or of saving Lazarus. The fourth day was truly a day without hope. And yet, Jesus shows up on this most hopeless of days.
The story of the raising of Lazarus is prefaced by a statement of its purpose: this illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.(2) Jesus is not declaring that now that he has arrived to save the day he will be admired and praised as the hero of the story. Rather, the raising of Lazarus will speed his own death—from that day on they counseled together how they might put him to death.(3) The glory of the resurrection—both for Lazarus and for Jesus—would first be the glory of Good Friday and Holy Saturday.
Bethany the home of Lazarus, Mary and Martha means house of affliction, and affliction is the crisis of our world, as well. Many who suffer live through seemingly unending days without hope and they dwell in houses of affliction. To what or to whom can they turn?
In the Lazarus narrative, the passion of Jesus bleeds through the surface of the story. Jesus was “deeply moved in spirit and troubled” and he wept aloud at the death of Lazarus. The crowd who saw him weeping said, “See how he loved him!”(4) But they couldn’t possibly understand all that was going on. Jesus weeps for Lazarus, and he weeps for all who are subject to suffering and death. He also experiences something like a Gethsemane, for he knows that calling Lazarus out of the tomb means that he must enter it. But for Jesus there is no other way because only in his taking on human suffering and death can he be the resurrection and the life for the world—and its only hope. He has come to the house of affliction—indeed, he has come to our world—to suffer and to die with us.
As we walk from Jerusalem to the hill of Golgotha this week—either as a pilgrim or a skeptic—might we find in these hopeless and holy days one who was counted among us as a fellow sufferer, and one who died with us, and for us.
Margaret Manning Shull is a member of the speaking and writing team in Bellingham, Washington.
(1) See John 11.
(2) John 11:4.
(3) John 11:53.
(4) John 11:36.