“he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved”. John 11:33
The Gospel readings take us inexorably towards Jerusalem and Calvary and an empty tomb in a garden on a Sunday morning. Eyes fixed on the horizon, we can sometimes miss what is close at hand; taking note of what the reading says about Jesus, we can miss what he is saying to us.
There is at the heart of this Gospel reading a profound lesson in caring for those going through sadness and tragedy; a lesson in standing alongside people and knowing when to say nothing. It was a lesson we were never taught in theological training.
I remember going to a house hit with a double tragedy. As I arrived, the family doctor was leaving. “Remember”, he said as he walked out of the door, “it all depends on having a right view of Jesus”.
He hardly noticed a twenty-six year old curate standing hesitatingly in the doorway, not knowing what to say. What do you say to a couple who have lost two of their children? The doctor obviously felt he knew.
If the doctor could say something, a priest being a tongue-tied was obviously hardly acceptable. For some years, there was the temptation to always have some comment, to always have an answer.
It was an old lady called Mary Ann who taught me the skill of silence.
Her son had died of cancer in his fifties. To compound the pain of the loss, a legalistic cleric had insisted upon the family observing episcopal regulations, which had no force in civil law, but which said that his ashes could not be scattered on the land of the farm that he had loved, but must be buried in a churchyard or cemetery.
Cremation was alien to the culture of that rural community; he had only been cremated to allow his wishes to be fulfilled. It seemed no more than a detail in her grief, but for her it was a very significant one. There grew the realisation that trying to suggest that the colleague was only doing as bidden, did nothing to resolve the matter. When she would talk about her son’s death, I realized that silence was the appropriate response.
When the man to whom she had been married for sixty-five years died, there was a sense of inevitability, but also a sense that a gaping hole had opened up in her life, that no words could possibly close. To sit and listen when she spoke, and to sit and know that it was all right to say nothing if she did not speak, was important.
Mary Ann was good at providing non-verbal cues. Sitting either side of her log fire, there would be the chink of china cups on saucers and she would turn and look into the fire, remembering moments long past and reflecting on the disappointments; her comments were observations rather than conversation, they were like captions under the pictures in her mind. The most that was required was a ‘yes’ at appropriate points.
It was when her great grandson died, not yet two years old, the firstborn of a new generation, that the silence reached its most profound. With big tears in her eyes she looked across, “Mr Poulton, I wish I were in the grave and he were alive”. There was no response, no possible answer.
Mary Ann’s quiet dignity came to mind years later when visiting a lady who pondered the death of her own son. She stared at the hearth and said, “Things would have been different if he had lived”. A nod was sufficient; there were no words that were possible in the face of overwhelming sadness.
The doctor’s parting words to the young couple still echo down through the years: “Remember, it all depends on having a right view of Jesus”. There would have been clergy in times past who would have taken him by the lapels and put him out onto the street, maybe Jesus would have done so himself. Jesus has no part in two little children dying.
In the face of grief over the death of Lazarus in Saint John’s Gospel, Jesus stands in silence. “He was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved”. Saint John tells us in verse 33, and “he began to weep” in verse 35. Jesus does not attempt to rationalize; he does not try to offer some convoluted explanation as to how Lazarus’ death was somehow a good thing.; Jesus simply shares in the grief of his friends. Sometimes having the confidence to say nothing shows greater faith than having the confidence to speak.
“Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” Jesus asks Martha in verse 40. His words are not an explanation of pain and suffering, but rather an introduction to the culmination of the signs he gave that he was the Messiah. He explains the event himself in verses 41 and 42, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. 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.”
This moment brings an end to Jesus’ public ministry. If we had read further in the chapter we would have come to verse 54, “Jesus therefore no longer walked about openly among the Jews, but went from there to a town called Ephraim in the region near the wilderness; and he remained there with the disciples”.
It seems a strangely inauspicious moment, yet it conveys a sense that Jesus knew about silence as well as words, about quietness as well as speaking. Had we learned the chapter as a model for pastoral ministry, many mistakes might have been avoided. Sometimes there are no words; sometimes knowing to just shut up is the most important skill we might have.