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Thoroughly Alive

We must hunger after the beautiful and the good...

 

You will see

A good Easter Monday to you, my friends. This blessed, rainy day finds Joy and me bundled in my little car Gypsy, rushing down the highway toward Asheville as the sun tussles with yet another storm. We don't mind the rain, in fact, it offers the spice of wildness to our travels. Brooding skies tinge a journey with mystery, while a cup of coffee is good as a faerie's brew to kindle courage in the bones. We have both. As a last savor of Easter this stormy morn, I want to share the story below. I began it as one of the narratives for my new book (a rewrite of this, to be published later this year), another of the episodes in the saga of Martha and Mary, those fascinating sisters. But the more I dwelt with that story in Scripture, the more I weighed the words that Martha spoke, then Jesus, then Mary, like gems whose meaning I would check by the measure of their power to burden my thought. I found a theme of resurrection pervading each action, driving each word, and it entered into my mind day and night.  What does resurrection look like here, in the broken place? Can we trust God to give it? What does it mean to all of us frail, hopeful little humans bumbling about in the sacred circles of our lives? Perhaps "you will see," (as Jesus said) a few of the same things I found in this story of death turned backwards into life. Happy Easter to you all!

Mary & Martha: You Will See The silence after parting from a beloved is a live, insistent presence. Mary hated it; the way the empty air echoes with the laughter of someone just gone. The way quiet seeps in after, slow, like the fall of night. The way you are left not just with yourself, but the staring absence of someone else. Now, Mary tensed as the silence of an irrevocable parting pooled about her. Lazarus, gentle and bright, the young brother whose voice was a music that filled the hearts of his sisters, was dead.

Mary understood why people wept and wailed in the presence of death. To her quiet self, weeping had always seemed too dramatic, but now, she knew. You could only stave off the void of that never-to-be-relieved silence by tears. Alone now in her tiny room, she sobbed.  A river of grief flooded her heart and throat and eyes, kept the silence at bay and brought the first comfort she’d touched since four days before when Lazarus died of a sudden fever.

“Stop it.”

As if the sobs had summoned her, Martha appeared, black-swathed and stolid, head high in the doorway. Mary groaned. Her first minutes alone in days, lost. Mourners crammed their little house, clucking, comforting neighbors whose affectionate ministrations were not to be escaped. Mary had thought herself safe. She too would die, she wanted to shout at Martha, if she did not have five minutes of un-peopled space. But the words never leapt, pleading, from her lips. No sound came at all, for how could she speak before the taut, tortured blaze of Martha’s face?

“Mary, we must not cry. Please.”

Mary ceased crying even before Martha strode to her, knelt, and rubbed away the tears in strokes that left red paths down Mary’s skin. Martha’s eyes gleamed black; they stared out like dark gems in the desert of her face where the skin stretched thin, etched deep by the cold of weariness, the heat of grief. Cheeks hollowed, as if by hunger, Martha stared ahead and Mary glimpsed the unspoken pain that devoured the life in her even as they stood together.

“We must be strong,” Martha spoke low again, her voice thick, “we are two lone women now. We cannot fall apart, even now. We must keep our heads and bear this. You must do it with me. Because we are, truly, alone.”

Mary now took Martha’s face in her hands, not flinching at the fever-heat of her sister’s skin, nor the hard aversion of the black eyes. “We’re not alone,” she whispered to her steeled older sister, coaxing forth the tears, the yielding that would heal her of the hard grief. “Our friends will help us,”

“What friends?” Martha whispered, flicking her face in disgust from Mary’s touch, “what can that gossiping bunch and their long-faced husbands do for us now? Everyone we needed has been taken. Father and Mother first, then Jacob, oh Jacob, my husband. And now even Lazarus. He wasn’t much use, but he was a man in the house. And he was gentle, such a sweet boy,” Martha’s voice cracked.

“Shush, Martha, shush. Truly, we are not alone. Jesus…”

Martha shoved herself out of Mary’s grasp and her face went crimson.

“Jesus?” she hissed, “Jesus? He’s not here Mary. Did you notice? He didn’t come. We begged for him to come, to save his own friend, and he, did, not, come.” Martha stepped back, bent double, her arms wrapped round herself as if she were in deathly pain. “Do not say his name to me. Master, we called him. Rabbi. Healer. What of these has he been to us? He neither came nor healed. He abandoned us and he is no longer my master.”

She spat the words and Mary bore their spite, knowing that Martha yearned to strike Jesus and instead could only hurt the one who loved him. Words rose like flames in Martha’s eyes, Mary saw them, but at that moment three wide-eyed women tumbled into the room.

“Mary, Martha,” they clucked, ruffled and restless as hens, “Jesus is here. Jesus is here! He’s coming down the main road and making straight for your house.”

Martha turned, eyes ablaze with fury. White and wordless, she shoved through the group and strode out the door. Chirping with surprise, the women pattered after her. And Mary, arms wrapped round herself, chin hunched into her dark cloak, resting still as a statue in the grey light of the window, was finally left to her peace.

¨¨¨

She could not walk fast enough; she stumbled. She picked up her skirts and her feet and ran. Oh how she hated him. After this she never wanted to see that false face, that cunning kindness again. He had tricked her, left her. Yet still Martha felt that if she could not reach Jesus just now, stand before him with the hard, hot weight of her grief like a coal in her hands to fling in his face, she would die.

Her fury was such that the rumor of it ran before her and the men around Jesus fell back a step. But he did not; he strode forward, steady, so that she met him sooner than she thought and skidded to a halt, panting. She was at no loss; tall, grim, in the dark, rough-woven cloak of her mourning, she drew herself up with eyes that flickered a tiger’s watch of its prey.

“Master,” she spat in greeting, and bobbed her head so that she mocked him with the unbroken glare of her eyes. Every muscle strained, she moved closer, not waiting for him to speak. “If you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

She stopped, choking on her accusation. This was not what she had meant to say. She wanted to scream that he was a liar, a trickster, a wandering poser who ate people’s food and won their hearts and spoke words of hope, then disappeared when pain showed its ugly face. No better than a street magician pulling feathers from people’s ears, while their servants picked people’s pockets. This was what she meant to scream right in his face, in front of those he loved. She could not. Her own heart betrayed her and spoke the truth she could not bear to behold.

He could have saved. He could have healed. He chose not too, and this was the deep, garish hurt. He was no charlatan, no cheap conjurer. The words he had spoken in all those evenings in her home, the kindness he gave her, the life he brought to her family was true as sunlight was true. If he was false, then life itself and the warm earth and the air she breathed must be false, because his goodness was real as the ground on which she stood. She remembered this anew as she watched him bear her words and saw the gentleness, unflinching, the mercy, steady in his eyes. His gaze upon her was a summons. She almost yielded, almost lurched into the arms she know would open, father-like, to catch her.

But she held back, confused. Jesus was the heart that beat life into all creation, how could he allow death? How let his beloved suffer? And die? She knelt abruptly on the pebbled ground, blind and frail in her confusion. No longer could she meet Jesus’ eyes. No one else knew how she had prayed in the dark of those final days as Lazarus lay sweating his life away. A frightened, childlike prayer to God, to Jesus, her faith fragile as a spider’s web yet offered in her darkest hour. Until the last she had hoped. And no answer had come. So now, she would beg. If he wanted dramatic obeisance, she would give it. Yahweh must be closer to the pagan gods than she thought; reluctant to answer until his lovers wrung every drop of tortured self onto the altar. Martha pled.

“Jesus, please. Even now, I know that God will give you whatever you ask.”

She stayed down, kneeling in the rough dust. Pebbles dented her hands; the long brown horizon of the dirt road filled her sight and she could not lift her eyes higher. She felt, more than saw, the feet of a gathering crowd rising like small mountain ranges frozen in place, disciples to the north, villagers to the south. And all of them stared down at her from their sure heights. Martha, the self-assured and strong, was finally humbled. None would join her, she knew, in this brown kneeling valley of loss. None would plead or wait with her. None would stoop to grieve beside her.

But one. She felt the steps as she might an earthquake.

“Martha.” Her eyes flicked up and she was astonished. Jesus was there. The immoveable God knelt next to her in the dirt in front of all the watchers. Jesus sat with her in the echoing valley of her barren, stripped-down soul. Forward she leaned, just barely toward him, lifting her eyes once more to his face, her lips open with shock.

“Martha,” he said again, demanding all her attention now. “Your brother will rise again.”

Again, she almost believed him, almost stumbled childlike into that liquid-eyed love. Then she realized the trick. She closed her eyes and shut him out.

“Yes Lord, I know. In the resurrection. At the last day.”

And small comfort that gave. She wanted life now. Hope, now. Death had defined her for so long. First, a plague had taken the mother and father who were the daylight of her world. Then a field accident had taken Jacob; the burly, blustering, merry-hearted husband who took her in and made a home of laughter for her forlorn siblings. With him, Martha almost believed in joy again. But after she buried Jacob, she gathered her brother and sister into the strong, beautiful home her husband had made them, and for a month Martha did not leave her house.

When she finally emerged, she was hard and bright. She ruled with the tenacity of death itself. No longer would she cry like Mary. The luxury of a tender heart had passed her by. She died to joy so that she could protect the ones she loved. She ruled, steel-bright, over her laughing brother and gentle sister. She sheltered frail Lazarus, she bossed the grieving Mary and made a household that seemed a small fortress against poverty or illness. Now again, death tricked her and stole the very thing she had given her soul to protect.

Through it all, through every death, God but watched. Never had he saved or stayed the iron fist of loss as it crushed her. Now, God stared out at her through the gentle eyes of the man who called himself son to the Almighty. And this God demanded that she believe in life. “Lazarus will live again,” he said. This Messiah asked her to believe that he had not betrayed her.

“I am the resurrection. I am the life,” he spoke now with a vehemence that drew her from her introspection, his face flushed with the truth of the words. He grabbed both her hands and caught her eyes. Life knelt before her, kind and fierce, his eyes a fire upon her face. “Anyone who believes in me will live, even if his body dies. And Martha, everyone who believes in me, who lives in me, will never die. Never. Do you believe this?”

His question was spoken so quietly, the nearby crowd did not hear. But Martha did, and knew that her answer would define her life. The pain of her doubt creased her face, and she rocked, aching, trying to form an answer. Lazarus was dead, her husband was dead, and grief was a pit in her soul. How could she believe the promise of Jesus?

But how could she not? Stripped now of every prop that ever staid her faith, bereft of her brother, kneeling in the dirt, Martha looked straight back at Jesus. And she knew. Either life beyond the hands of death, hope beyond all the grief of the world, and infinite love were true, or they were not. She could not dabble in doubt and think it would not kill her. Faith was not a toy she could pick up when she liked, then set it down. One truth must be chosen, and she must fling herself body and soul into the choice. Choose doubt? Choose to believe that death was the end of all things, that love would be crushed, that hope was a fancy for children? No.

Only one choice remained. She must trust in a life and power beyond her sight. She must fling a cry of faith into the very face of death, stare him down and declare him somehow beaten, because this was the only answer. If Jesus was true, then his life must be true, even when she was blinded by loss. Life must be working to turn back death even now. The choice was made, and she opened her hands, yielding her spirit to the master who knelt before her as a strong, strangled cry broke from her throat.

“Yes, yes, I believe.”

The crowd stirred around her, and Martha scrambled suddenly to her feet, eyes brilliant with the words that burgeoned suddenly to life in her, like the gathering of light at dawn. Her old self settled back on her shoulders and she stood straight, placed her hands on her hips, took a deep breath and spoke exactly what she must, “yes,” she declared, her voice strong and golden, “I believe. You are the Christ, the son of the living God. Yes, I believe.”

And then she was weeping as grief and faith rushed together within her and made a flood of joy unlike anything she had ever felt. Jesus opened his arms, and she fell into them. This was her truth. From this moment forth she would walk in the love of this gentle God. Though death strike her heart and fear her soul, yet she would be safe, held in the firm hands of this God whose robe was dusty from kneeling with her, whose hands were striped by her tears. She was sure now, as Mary was sure of this one good thing, of a love beyond any sorrow, and better than any joy. Yes, she believed.

¨¨¨

“Mary, Mary! Where are you?” the vibrancy of the voice startled Mary from her thoughts in the corner. The cry was Martha’s, she knew, yet she questioned her senses. This was Martha’s voice changed; some weight had been lifted, some shadow blazed away from her tones. It was, Mary knew with a thrill, the voice of Martha’s girlhood, the voice that sang music from stone to rafter in the early days before the world was broken.

“I’m here Martha, here,” she called, stepping into the next room where a warm, black-swathed hurricane threw itself around her. Martha was hugging her. This took Mary a few seconds to digest, and it was with shocked, shaking hands that she reached her arms round the moist bundle of womanhood that trembled before her. Wet, yes, for Martha was drenched in tears. They slicked her face and soaked her scarf.  But as Mary pulled gently back, it was Martha’s eyes she feasted upon; eyes clean and cooled, grey eyes with light springing up like water from some deep well. She saw a face with the curved softness of a child’s, the anguished lines filled in with love, the hard red anger washed away. Seeing it, Mary began to weep and this time Martha did not stop her. They clung together, faces hidden in each other as their broken world was cleansed. Finally Martha whispered, “The Master wants to see you.”

Mary rushed from the house. A bevy of women followed, but she didn’t see. Swift in her love as Martha had been in her anger, Mary ran up the road to Jesus. No hesitation stayed her feet. No anger restrained her. She fled swiftly to the heart that had already cradled her soul for the past four days. Straight to the arms that would shelter her through every darkness and turn every death back to life.

The villagers made a circle around her just as they had with Martha. Before, it had been a ring of curiosity, now they lined the space where Mary wept and there was a gentle longing in their faces. Mary knelt at Jesus’ feet and he knelt to meet her, to hold her as she shook with grief and finally, repeated her sister; “if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” With her though, it was assent. He could have saved, he did not. She trusted his love. And yet that love was already turning death to life.

Mary lifted her face to Jesus, and hope glimmered in the black of her eyes like the first hint of dawn. Martha was healed. Martha who had been dead in soul sure as Lazarus was in body. Life was already turning death backwards so she would cling and weep at the heart of it and… watch. There was a light mixed with the grief in Jesus’ eyes as he watched her face.

“Take me to the tomb,” he said. At once, there was a mass of feet moving and elbows nudging as the crowd pressed close to Jesus.

“This way Rabbi,” said gruff, wizened men and squirming children alike, careless of anything but his favor. They reached the place, just beyond the edge of the village, a cave fashioned into a handsome tomb. Back they drew then as they had with Mary, and made a circle around the entrance of the tomb. The first circle had been of love, a sacred place. This too was holy, but it was the circle of death, and no one wanted to draw too near it. So Jesus stepped in, alone. He walked forward, put his hand on the stone that sealed his friend away from the faces that loved him. He bent his head, and he wept.

Martha watched and marveled that God himself should stand at the site of her loss and share her grief. Mary watched and ached to see Love bear her sorrow, love stand at the place of broken hearts and somehow begin the turning back of death. The crowd watched with faces softened, eyes, even the old ones, misty with tears. Here was a Rabbi who did not stand apart from their grief, spouting platitudes and proverbs from the Torah while widows and children wept. This was a teacher to grieve alongside them, honor their pain and make it his own.

A few crusty ones, crusty not in face or bones, but soul, stood aside and whispered that this was a mockery since a healer of blind men ought to have saved his friend. But they were unceremoniously jabbed in the ribs and shushed by their neighbors, who said you could not doubt a rabbi willing to weep. The whole crowded circle leaned forward toward the brave, weeping man. Suddenly, he straightened, struck the tombstone with his fist and turned.

“Take away this stone.”

Silence, frozen, met him. Eyes wide and whitened as sea stones stared at him all around. He smiled, strode over and smacked a few of his friends on the shoulders. “Come, quickly, help me. Move the stone.”

His words gathered vim and volume, brightness glimmered in his eyes as five men heaved and hacked at the stone.

“Lord,” it was Martha, squirming, her hands twisting, her face blotchily flushed. “He’s been dead for four days. He’ll stink.”

Jesus, Mary swore afterwards, rolled his eyes and laughed, but Martha never saw it; she was too busy cringing and wishing these practical observations could be kept from her lips. Jesus stomped over and stood right in front of her.

“Martha.” Jesus was grinning. “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?”

The stone was gone. A black, dusty hole gaped in the mountain wall, dust motes fled from it into the grey light. Jesus turned to the shadow and planted himself dead center, face uplifted, arms outstretched, fronting the blackness.

“Father,” he cried so that everyone there was arrested by his voice, “I thank you that you have always heard me. I know You always do, but I say this aloud today for these people here, so that they may know that You have sent me.”

The last words struck at the darkness and stone like a hammer; they rung from rock to rock, hard and brilliant, chipping away at death and fear.

“Lazarus!” Jesus’ voice was an earthquake, a whirlwind, a roar of thunder at highest storm, “come forth!”

In a symphony of echoes, the command rose up and shook the air. In an instant, the crowd heard a scrabbling inside the tomb, the pat and swish of feet in the rocky dust, the plink of stones kicked out from moving feet. Jesus’ cry still echoed round as a slight, linen-swathed figure stumbled into the cave’s dark entrance.

The crowd stood like dead men, watching. Not a muscle twitched among them, breaths were barely drawn as Jesus stepped up and unwound the slender, white strips of cloth from the figure’s face. First came eyes like the brown earth washed in sunlight and newly turned in spring. They glittered with life. Then, inch-by-inch, the face, firm with joy, until the lips were free and Lazarus met the eyes of his Lord.

“Jesus,” he said, tears in his laughing eyes, an imp’s grin on his boyish mouth, “you called?”

And the silence of the tomb was shattered in a cacophony of laughter. Wild echoes of joy leapt and cried as the crowd roared to life. People danced and laughed, grabbed each other by the arm and spun each other round. Mary tumbled forward and grabbed her brother. Martha could not decide whether to sob or laugh and so choked herself merrily on both as she clutched at Lazarus’ free arm and met the life in his eyes.

“Martha,” he blurted, “good grief, you’ve been crying. You’d think I’d died or something.”

And then she laughed indeed, bent double with a joy that broke and healed her all at once. She laughed as people wrung her hands in congratulations, as Mary jumped up and down. She laughed as the circle of death filled with dancing because Love had come among them and Love had not failed. She laughed as her eyes were filled with the sight of the glory of God.