Sunday, April 17, 2011

What Disturbs God

Last Sunday the Gospel reading dealt with John's account of the raising of Lazarus from the dead. Jesus, on his way to Jerusalem, is informed of the death of his friend Lazarus. Jesus' reaction is to be with their family, undoubtedly familiar with the upheaval and confusion that comes with death. Death is an awkward and terrible time for those left behind, but there is an innate desire to congregate in the hopes of making sense of it all.
I've heard this Gospel reading many times throughout my life, almost always conscious of its happy ending. Jesus comes to the family, asks to see Lazarus' tomb, horrifies Lazarus' friends and family by asking them to open the tomb, and then calls the dead Lazarus out of the grave, bringing him back to life after four days in the tomb. Knowing that things work out in the end isn't always helpful.  There's a mantra that most of us misguidedly tell ourselves when things are going fine with our lives: everything is okay...everything will be all works out in the end. But what if things aren't okay?

Last Sunday something else dawned on my as I listened to this weather-worn story and it came with this verse:

So when the Jews who were with her in the house comforting her
saw Mary get up quickly and go out,
they followed her,
presuming that she was going to the tomb to weep there.
When Mary came to where Jesus was and saw him,
she fell at his feet and said to him,
“Lord, if you had been here,
my brother would not have died.”
When Jesus saw her weeping and the Jews who had come with her weeping,
he became perturbed and deeply troubled, and said,
“Where have you laid him?”

or, as the NRSV translates it:

When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, 
he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.
 He said, "Where have you laid him?" They said to him, "Lord, come and see."

 (Joh 11:33-34 NRS)

 Jesus is "greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved", a point that is reiterated immediately afterward:

Jesus began to weep.
 So the Jews said, "See how he loved him!"
 But some of them said, "Could not he who opened the eyes 

of the blind man have kept this man from dying?"
 Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. 

It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it.
 (Joh 11:35-38 NRS)

Both times, Jesus is rebuked for not doing enough to save His friend Lazarus. He is confronted with the charge that He could have done something but for whatever reason did not. The context of the passage tells us that not only could He have done something, but He was expected to prevent the death of His friend. In the Gospels, Jesus is known as a great miracle worker. His healing miracles are a sobering reminder of the nature of the Kingdom of God, Christ's primary message of God's reign on earth. They are a message to the world that God is alive and active in this world in a new way, and Jesus Himself initiates and embodies this change. So, if this is the case, why couldn't He prevent the death of a friend? Why make His friends and family suffer? Moreover, why go through the grief Himself? These little moments of great emotion are reminders that Jesus is very human, even painfully so. Soon after this passage Jesus weeps when he is faced with the burial place of Lazarus (John 11:35), as though the reality of his friend's death did not sink in until that moment. John's Gospel clearly pronounces this tension in Jesus: he is both undoubtedly God (John 10:30, 17:21, and the "I AM" sayings of 4:26, 6:35, 8:12, 8:28, 8:58, 18:5, etc) but also unmistakeably human. As such, people have no fear of laying blame and guilt on Him, even when it isn't quite deserved.

Before going on, it's worth saying something. Contrary to how the Bible is portrayed in popular culture, the books of the Bible are sophisticated literature, varying in style and genre. Translation often masks this, obscuring the structure of the individual books and the importance of grammar and vocabulary. Themes can be lost on the reader if they aren't careful readers.

There are two words used to describe Jesus' emotional response to this charge of irresponsibility. In Greek they are tarasso and embrimaomai. In this passage embrimaomai is used twice, the only two times in all of John's Gospel. In it's active form it is usually used to denote a kind of scolding or harsh treatment towards someone or something. According to the Friberg Lexicon, in the passive form (like in this passage) it means to be "deeply moved" or to "groan". The notes of the New American Bible say that it literally means that Jesus "snorted in spirit". It's an interesting word choice that shows a sense of deep pain that in Jesus was directed inwardly. It is not a gentle word, giving a sense of the depth of Jesus' grief. The image of the unaffected God has no place in this passage.

That's certainly interesting, but it was the other word that gave me the deeper pause. In the NRSV translation it stated that Jesus was "disturbed". As I left Mass last week, I had the NAB translation running through my mind: "...he became perturbed and deeply troubled", "perturbed and deeply troubled", "perturbed and deeply troubled". When I came home I took my Bible out: "disturbed in spirit and deeply moved". How remarkable! This Jesus...someone who 2 billion people identify as God, including myself. And here he is, experiencing that profound sense of being unsettled that I feel when I sense that something isn't right. Feeling disturbed, feeling a sense of trepidation, that is an unmistakably human experience. When we feel disturbed, there is a connection between an intellectual grasp of a disquieting state of affairs and our natural and emotional response. And death is always disturbing. I can't stand the idea of death when I let myself think about it. Death changes everything in me. Dealing with the death of those I love is a constant fear of mine. Death just isn't right. If death does not disturb you then you just haven't thought about it enough. It bothered Jesus and it should bother you too.

When you further explore John's Gospel, tarasso is something of a minor theme. It is used five times in John's Gospel, in a Gospel where words are very important. From the beginning of the Gospel, Jesus is identified as the logos, the "word" ("In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God", John 1:1) and word choice is not a minor issue in the Gospel. In chapters 11 to 14 of John's Gospel, "tarasso" is used first to describe Jesus' emotional state when confronting the death of His friend Lazarus. In chapter 12, Jesus' "soul is troubled" again, this time when facing His own approaching death. In chapter 13, Jesus is again "troubled in spirit" as he tells the apostles that one of them would betray Him. We are given this insight in three consecutive chapters.

Yet something very interesting happens in chapter 14. Here, Jesus begins to console the apostles as he prepare them for His death. He tells them the following:

"Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me." (Joh 14:1 NRS)


"Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid." (Joh 14:27 NRS)

Again, we encounter the same word: tarasso. Jesus, having experienced a series of deeply disturbing events, is now asking His followers to not be "troubled". What does this mean? Isn't this hypocritical? How can Jesus ask His followers to do something that He did not do? Chapter 14 introduces a new word to John's Gospel. That word is eirene, which means "peace". This word is fairly common to the Bible, but in John's Gospel it is the introduction of a new word and, therefore, a new theme. On the eve of His death, Jesus is initiating a new order. After having just been told not to be troubled, Jesus wants to give them peace. And it's not just any peace, it's His peace. Jesus, the disquieted mourner, agitated at the point of His death, and disturbed by the betrayal of a friend and follower, is the repository of peace. His peace is not a generic experience of peace but an existential presence that stands against fear and a troubled heart.

But how? How can Jesus have both? How can He be both?

Another theme that runs throughout the New Testament and theology is kenosis, which refers to the self-emptying of God. In Christ, God allows Himself to be vulnerable and in doing so, shows us His truest nature as love. He is a God that suffers with us rather than removing all suffering, choosing to be someone at our side rather than a distant force of the universe. It may not be the god that we would prefer, but He insists on the way of compassion and love. In the person of Jesus Christ, the self-emptying of God allows Him to take on our suffering, to suffer as we suffer. This means not only that He experiences physical pain but also all existential suffering. He does this without resigning his divinity, but rather only the benefit of his divinity. "though he was in the form of God, [he] did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited" (Phi 2:6 NRS). In her Book of All Saints, Swiss mystic Adrienne von Speyr recounts the relationship between Jesus and Judas in the context of a mystical vision. It's one of the finest and most succinct illustration of this principal at work. She speaks (the visions were dictated rather than written down) of Jesus in His divinity laying aside any right to knowledge of Judas' betrayal so that He may know Judas as His friend and not be spared the indignity of betrayal. The experience of the Son of God is one of limitation that is adopted in God's love for His people. At the raising of Lazarus, Jesus is able to know that all will be well for Lazarus, but instead chooses to experience what anyone else would experience at the loss of a friend. "For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin" (Heb 4:15 NRS). God will suffer with us whether or not things will turn out in our favor. Yet, he remains God.

In Catholic theology, building on Greek philosophy, the logos/"Word" takes on another, more profound, meaning. It refers to the divine reason, the inner order and cohesion that binds all things together. It is the orchestration of all being by a common principal, a principal that is not only embodied in Jesus but is Christ Himself. God is the ground of all our being and, as C.S. Lewis wrote, "the realest thing there is". God is not a projection of our deepest longings, but is he in whom "we live and move and have our being" (Acts 17:28, quoting from the Greek philosophers). Reason is the operating principal of all reality, yet that principal is found in Christ. He is the "image of the invisible God" (Col 1:15). To see Christ is to see God for who He is. Recently on Twitter, Fr James Martin (a Jesuit who has written a number of popular books on Catholic spirituality) put it very simply: "...having a difficult time understanding who God is, or what God is like? Just look at Jesus."

Jesus' moments of  trouble and disturbance tells us of something even greater regarding God's unexpected desire for raw vulnerability: that beating deep within the heart of the universe is a great and unfathomable compassion. There are moments in this life where I become so disturbed by something that it my whole soul is shaken. I can't help it, I'm human. But I also know that God knows exactly how I feel.

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