In the middle of the 19th century, there was a six-year-old boy down South, whom we’ll call Mark. His parents had just died, and a well-to-do aunt who lived nearby took him in and raised him as if he were her own son. He grew up, received a good education, and went up North where he became a successful businessman. Years later Mark received a letter from his aunt. She had terminal cancer, and it was obvious to Mark from the tone of her letter that she was terrified of dying. In response, Mark wrote her a loving and lengthy letter of reassurance, in which he said:
“It is now thirty-five years since I, a little boy of six, was left quite alone in the world. You sent me word that you would give me a home and be a mother to me. I’ve never forgotten the day when I made the long journey of ten miles to your house. . . . You sent your servant Caesar, a black man, to fetch me. I well remember my tears and my anxiety as, perched high on your horse and clinging tight to Caesar, I rode off to my new home. Night fell before we finished the journey and as it grew dark, I became even more afraid. ‘Do you think she’ll go to bed before I get there?’ I asked Caesar anxiously. ‘Oh, no,’ said Caesar, ‘she’ll sure stay up for you. When we get out of the woods, you’ll see her light shining in the window.’ Presently, we did ride out into the clearing and there was your light. I remember that you were waiting at the door; that you put your arms tight around; that you lifted me—a tired, frightened little boy—down from the horse. You had a fire burning on the hearth; a hot supper waiting on the stove. After supper you took me to my new room. You heard me say my prayers. Then you sat with me until I fell asleep.
You probably realize why I am trying to recall this to your memory now. Very soon, God is going to send for you, and take you to a new home. . . . You needn’t be afraid of the summons or of the strange journey or of the dark messenger of death. God can be trusted. God can be trusted to do as much for you as you did for me so many years ago. At the end of the road you’ll find love and a welcome waiting. And you’ll be safe in God’s care. I’m going to watch and pray for you until you’re out of sight. And I shall wait for the day when I make the same journey myself and find you waiting at the end of the road to greet me” (Bausch, Once Upon A Gospel, p. 107). This story speaks to us, in a simple but profound way, of how the Lord wants us to understand death. For those who have faith in Him, and who express this faith by being compassionate toward others, a loving welcome and a joyous homecoming await on the other side. Jesus is the Lord of life, and He is eager to share the fullness of this gift with His friends.
Through the prophet Ezekiel, some 500 years before Christ, the Lord God promised that He would one day open the graves of His people and restore them to life. St. Paul speaks of how this prophecy is fulfilled in a spiritual sense: we were dead in sin, but through Christ, the Holy Spirit frees us from our offenses and prepares us to share in the resurrection of Jesus. Our Lord had called Himself the resurrection and the life, but He knew that this concept was somewhat abstract and difficult for people—even His own followers—to believe. Therefore, upon receiving word of the terminal illness of His friend Lazarus, He deliberately waited until after Lazarus had died before setting out for Bethany. This allowed Him not merely to heal His friend, but to call him forth from the grave and restore him to life, and to do so in the presence of many witnesses—a mere two miles from the place where He Himself would die and rise a few weeks later. In this way Our Lord was promising victory over death to those willing to place their trust in Him.
Jesus is the Lord of life, and while this is ultimately and perfectly true in the eternal realm of the Kingdom of Heaven, He also wants us to become fully alive here on earth. Has your sense of optimism and hope weakened or even died over the years? Jesus wants to fill you with His peace and stir into flame the power of His love in your heart. Has your sense of purpose and meaning in life disappeared in the face of many disappointments and unfulfilled dreams? Jesus wants to touch your hearts and remind you that serving Him leads to true joy and a sense of self-worth. Has your sense of dignity and happiness been crushed or overwhelmed by grief, loneliness, or failure?
Jesus wants to embrace you and console you, while inviting you to unite your sufferings with His for your own intentions and especially for the salvation of sinners—thereby giving you a vitally important role in His ongoing plan of salvation. The Lord loves each one of us more than we can comprehend, and can give our lives a value and dignity beyond all our imagining—but we must give Him our trust, and be willing to share His love with others. Just as Mark’s aunt took him in when he was alone, frightened, and helpless—in effect giving him back his life—so we are called to be generous, sensitive, and compassionate in responding to others who are suffering, hurting, or abandoned in any way.
There are many “Lazaruses” around us, and sometimes Jesus chooses to work through us in restoring them to life and setting them free. The more we’re willing to do this, the more we ourselves become spiritually alive; the more we cooperate with God’s grace, the more He’ll set us free from our fears and prepare us for the new life of Heaven. If we are truly friends of Jesus, when it comes to life and death, we have no reason to fear—and every reason to rejoice.