Signpost for Sunday 1 November 2015, All Saints Day: Isa 25:6-9; Ps 24:1-6; Rev 21:1-6a; John 11:32-44
Festive readings with a deliberately obvious link are given to us this week. Isa 25:8 and Rev 21:4, echo each other clearly across the mountains of scripture between them.
But I thought I’d have a look at what may not be quite so obvious on first reading the passage from John instead.
One thing that struck me was that Mary says exactly the same thing to Jesus as her sister has just said (“Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died”). Yet Jesus’ response is completely different from how he answers Martha. He doesn’t talk theology again.
Instead, surrounded by death and mourning, he is “greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply troubled.” Before our very eyes, Jesus the Word becomes Jesus the flesh and blood human being (just as John 1:14 promised). He is overcome by the kind of grief and sorrow that all of us experience at such times. I think the writer of John’s gospel is deliberately and brilliantly using the realism of this death to underline the truth of this (Lazarus’s) resurrection.
And it’s another starkly realistic bit in this story that stands out for me, too. Look at what Martha says when Jesus asks them to roll back the stone: “Lord, already he stinks.”
I’ve always thought that was put in there to make sure we know that Lazarus really is dead and not just in a very deep sleep (or coma) as Jesus metaphorically says in John 11:11. But because I carried on reading this week, it made me notice something else. Immediately after a story where the stench of death hangs in the air comes a story in which Mary of Bethany anoints Jesus’ feet with pure nard, and the “the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume” (12:3) – the aroma of life perhaps.
Which is really what we want on the festival of All Saints, when you think that we’re celebrating the lives of the saints, not their deaths. Personally, I think it’s a shame we don’t still call it Hallowmas as Shakespeare does in the Two Gentlemen of Verona, Act 2 Scene 1.