This past Sunday, as part of our celebration of All Saints Day, we heard the story from John’s Gospel about the raising of Lazarus. It’s a story that I have heard many times, of course, but this time I was struck by something that had never caught my attention before. Near the end of the story, when Lazarus comes out of the tomb, Jesus says to those present, “Unbind him, and let him go” (John 11:44b).
On the surface, this is an instruction to remove the linen strips that had been wrapped around Lazarus’s body after he died. But in the gospels — and, perhaps, particularly in John — the surface or most obvious meaning is hardly ever the deepest meaning. And this past Sunday, as we remembered those whom we love who have departed this life, I heard these words of Jesus as guidance in the journey of grieving.
Whenever we suffer the loss of a loved one — or any sort of loss — it is hard for us to simply let go of that loss and move on. We need to spend time in that dark place between life and death, facing our own pain and anger, facing our questions and our uncertainties. In the story of the raising of Lazarus, Mary and Martha might have physically been outside of Lazarus’s tomb, but their spirits were inside that dark cave with him. Part of their pain revolved around the words Martha spoke to Jesus upon his arrival: ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’ It is a statement that masks a question: How could you have let this happen, Jesus? And even though we know that death and loss are an inevitable part of our lives, we often sit in the dark cave of grief wondering the same thing, trying to reconcile the pain of loss with the proclamation of God as love.
Jesus calls Lazarus back to life by crying out his name, and telling him to come out of his tomb. But that invitation is not just for Lazarus. It is also for Martha and Mary, because as Lazarus comes out of that dark place between life and death, so do the spirits of his sisters. And then Jesus invites them to do one last thing: to unbind their brother, and let him go.
Whenever we sit in the darkness of grief, Jesus begins to call to us to come out. Sometimes we are able to hear that invitation quickly. Often, it may take weeks, months, or even years to hear that call. It is a call to come out and unbind our loss and let it go — which also involves unbinding ourselves, and letting ourselves move forward. The only way we can do that, I think, is when we trust that as we unbind and let go, there is One who is prepared to take that which we let go and hold it for ever in love. That One will hold not only that which we let go, but will also hold us in our act of unbinding, letting go, and moving forward back into light.
That is what faith really means: to trust that there is One who holds us, and the universe, always in an embrace that even death cannot wriggle out of.