My brother in law died some months ago after a
long experience of cancer. There was one unforgettable circumstance
about his death that the family has been talking about ever since.
It happened this way.
Bill referred to an appointment at 9:47 AM to a number of people
during the long week before he died. These were a variety of people
– some were not even family members. As his body was failing
and he was approaching death, the family gathered in prayer and
support. Bill was very aware and spiritually very attuned to what
was happening. Finally his body gave out and he did die –
at exactly 9:47 AM.
Needless to say our family has been taken with this story ever
since, and today’s Gospel of the death of Lazarus has caused
me to focus on life and the subtle and constant presence of the
More and more I hear or read where people are asking this basic
question. Are we spiritual beings having a physical experience
- or are we physical beings with a spiritual aspect? The question
is asked as though it were an either/ or question. We are both
physical and spiritual, and there is no need to prioritize one
over the other. But that answer leads us to ask other questions.
We live in a culture with many ambiguities. While medical advances,
healing drugs and remarkable illness-battling innovations are
occurring constantly in our age, there is always the subtle suggestion
that we can extend our lives indefinitely.
We are all aware how young people, infused with energy and naiveté
with their reckless driving and other behaviors, can live as though
death is far away in some vague and distant future.
We can also be inordinately focused on how we appear to others,
our dress, hair styles, resumes, status in work, social status
in society, number of cars, houses and neighborhoods in which
we live, schools we attend, and so forth. We are being ‘mauled
‘ by our malls, and we often hear criticism of this as the
‘materialism of our age.’
In other words there is a ‘denial of death’ bias that
sits like a shadow behind much of our so-called life styles, and
as long as it is there our spiritual and religious hidden in the
darkness. I believe that underneath this ‘denial of death’
attitude is a denial and failure to recognize the life of Spirit.
Physicality appears to be our most conscious awareness. Spiritual
concerns are less conscious and apparently of a lesser priority.
We become overwhelmed by the power offered to us by our “things.”
Our vision of life becomes therefore split - with physicality
becoming the winner! A dualism results and ‘spirit’
In the Gospel today Jesus waits four days before calling Lazarus
forth from the tomb. Physical death does not seem to be the problem;
for Jesus, life is the focus.
As my brother in law was dying, he became an example to us of
a well-integrated faith experience. He was in this world passing
through death. But he was also doing so with a deep faith and
trust in God’s presence. The integration of the two –
in my opinion – was manifested in his awareness of the hour
of his death … 9:47AM. Where did he get this knowledge?
Why would he announce this so assuredly to many of us throughout
the week? What is the significance of such a startling –
and haunting - pronouncement?
I can tell you now, months later, that our family has been intrigued
by this incident; we see it clearly as a sign of the deep presence
of spirit in life. We are reassured that we in faith do live in
the Risen Christ and that there is a transcending love all around
us in ordinary appearances – and not just in death! I call
this a miracle in consciousness and a testimony to ‘risen
Most of us fear death. We struggle with the idea that all that
we have will somehow be lost and abandoned to an unknown destiny
that awaits us. We do not see how our identities have been overwhelmingly
tied up into our successes, possessions, accomplishments, reputations,
and the like. In this kind of consciousness we do not know who
we are. We reveal lives lived more by substance than by faith.
It is interesting how Lazarus came forth from the tomb at the
call of Jesus, “Lazarus, come forth.” He was clothed
in the dressings of death, but also the clothing of the newly
baptized believer whose understanding of the sacred rite included
the pivotal “death to self” so necessary for living
by the Spirit. And then Jesus said to them, “Untie him and
set him free.” Would that each of us could set free from
all the bandages and vestiges of “things” that bring
us to a point of addiction and deadened life.
In this fifth Sunday of Lent, with the powerful story of the raising
of Lazarus, we need to be ready to identify any imbalance between
our ‘worldly’ embrace and our spiritual well being.
Our focus can be on the will of Christ to call us out of the encumbrances
of tomb and stone and darkness and abandonment into the light
of community, family and church.
After all, who of us does not seek authentic freedom? We long
to hear the voice of a faithful God who can say to those around
us, ‘Untie him!’ ‘Set her free.’ ‘Loosen
The time and manner of our death is one thing; the way we live
our lives is another! Live your life as well as you are able,
of course! But be sure to live your physical life by Spirit. For
each of us has an appointment - but it’s not necessarily
with what we call death. It’s with the Lord whose presence
continuously offers to us … Eternal Life.