Readings: Ezekiel 37:12-14; Psalm 129 (130); Romand 8:8-11; John 11:1-45
In the Franciscan church at Arezzo is the wonderful cycle of frescoes by Piero della Francesca illustrating the legend of the True Cross. A part of that legend is that the cross of Jesus was erected in the same place in which Adam, the first man, had been buried. One of the scenes represented in the frescoes is the death of Adam, a powerfully poignant painting. Standing around the dying man are the members of his family including Eve, his partner from the beginning. They keep vigil, as all families do sooner or later, watching over the one who is dying and giving full attention to what he is going through and to what he might say before he finally leaves them.
The difference here is that this is the first natural death of a human being. Abel had been murdered by Cain but that was something different. In watching the dying of Adam his family are witnessing for the first time the full consequences of sin, the end of human life as we know it. Faced with death, which is both natural for an animal of our kind and unnatural for a being with the capacities that we have, Adam's family are the first to be dismayed, puzzled and resigned to this most inevitable of events. They pave the way for all human beings who have followed after them and who have faced the same questions: death is so final and so undeniable but what is it?
We know that death means the end of life, of experience, of possibilities, of communication, of presence. Sometimes the suffering that has preceded it has been so deep and intense that the coming of death is a 'happy release'. In such circumstances we are more conscious of the end of suffering than of any other aspect of it. Often though death has a tragic character. It comes too soon, it comes too painfully, it is no respecter of persons, it cuts through all commitments, relationships and obligations, it removes people abruptly leaving no time for farewells, it devastates families and lovers, parents and children, friends and admirers. It leaves the aching heart, the empty place, a sense of loss without hope of replenishment, a merciless silence.
Gathered at the tomb of Lazarus is another family and another group of friends. The chief mourners are Martha and Mary, sisters of the dead man. Friends arrive, including Jesus of Nazareth, but he comes too late. 'If you had been here', Martha says to him, Lazarus would not have died. Jesus could have healed him and preserved him from death. Instead a greater sign is to be given, not the healing of a man from sickness but the restoration of a man to life.
Paul describes Jesus as the Second Adam or the Last Adam, and here he performs a sign which shows that the work he has come to do is the most radical possible, a work that complements and transcends what the First Adam had brought about. The way the world has been structured up to now, in particular the relationship between sin and death, this is to be all undone. The way in which God's original intention had been disturbed is to be overcome and a new reality, a new life, a new creation are to be inaugurated.
Jesus is fully present in the human experience of that death which is a consequence of sin. He becomes visibly upset and weeps for his friend Lazarus. And he calls him forth from the tomb, tells the mourners to release him from the tight shroud, and to let him live freely again.
Love follows death. It stays with those who have died and continues to hold them even while their bodies are corrupting in the earth. Combined with faith, love now grounds a remarkable hope, reaching beyond death, reaching up to the Lord of Life. What happened to Lazarus is not yet resurrection, only a sign of what was to happen in the tomb of Jesus.
Lazarus is restored to life, not resurrected to the new life. He is unbound, set free and given back to his people. In the raising of Lazarus death is conquered, momentarily. But in the resurrection of Jesus death is conquered definitively. There will then be no earthly body emerging from the tomb, there will be only the empty tomb. There will then be no resuscitated person needing help to be unbound and to live again, for the grave clothes will be cast aside and the appearance of the new body will be glorious. There will then be no return to life as it was before, for the new heavens and the new earth will have begun to be created.
Lazarus was not the resurrection but bears witness to the resurrection. Jesus is the resurrection, and the life, and everyone who believes in him will not die but will have eternal life. Love follows death and continues to hold the dead one. When the lovers involved are the Eternal Father and his Only Son then the Father, following Him into death, does not allow his body to see corruption but raises him from the dead, not to live again this natural life with its merciless structures of sin and death but to live in the glory of the resurrected life, in the new creation breathed into existence by the Holy Spirit.
From Piero della Francesca's fresco of the death of Adam in Arezzo we can soon turn to contemplate his more famous painting of the resurrection of Jesus in San Sepolcro, a painting complementary to that in Arezzo but so much more powerful, so much more devastating, for it means the end of this world and the beginning of a new creation.