John 11:1-45, Fifth Sunday of Lent
Or in Greek, embrimasthai. It is a word that is variously translated as a groaning, a thundering within, a trembling inside. It is what Jesus lets out when he sees his dear friends Martha and Mary weeping, when he asks where his beloved Lazarus lies.
“Jesus said in great distress, with a sigh that came straight from the heart, ‘Where have you put him?’”
A sigh is hardly a surface thing, even if the word looks tame or signifies resignation, exhaustion, weariness, or relief. On Jesus’ distress over the death of Lazarus, someone proposed the translation: “He gave way to such distress of spirit as made his body tremble.” In our own language, buntong hininga is not shallow.
\If this is all too human, this is also something we predicate of God. Our God is a moveable God. Search divinity and you will find no fiber of numbness in our God. Even heaven’s senses are not deadened to death, any death, even the death of the sinner.
Our crisis today is not a crisis of crime or addiction. In the culture of death that our nation seems all to eager to cultivate and celebrate, our crisis is a moral and spiritual one. Our numbness, our apathy, our scorn and laughter are enough to make God tremble. And the tremors are felt beyond our borders.
We blunt the killings with our visceral desire for vengeance. We invoke the law of the talion (lex talionis, “an eye for an eye”) as public policy and as part of realpolitik when the ancient Greeks have long abandoned that tenet and replaced it with the rule of law and democracy. Even Mohandas Gandhi is known to have admitted: an eye for an eye will leave the whole world blind.
We blunt our consciences with our visceral desire for peace. But that peace is merely the peace of the cemetery. Try asking any grieving child or wife or son or anyone bereft of a beloved if there is peace before the grave.
Life is sacred to God. If God were to have only one desire, it would be life. Even the prophet Ezekiel confirms this longing and promise of our God: “I am now going to open your graves; I mean to raise you from your graves, my people…”
Life is so sacred to God that its violation is enough to plunge God into embrimasthai, into this anguished sighing that makes him tremble inside. The epicenter of these tremors is to be found in the heart of God. If there is anything that thunders in your soul, know that it is coming from the One for whom life is sacred because life is from him and every life belongs ultimately to him.
The shortest verse in the Bible is found in this story of Lazarus. In John 11:35, there are only two words: Jesus wept. It was as if the writer himself was bereft of words before the unspeakable.
Remember our Glyzelle Palomar? She was a street child who, with Jun Chura, her companion, had to survive on our streets, struggling “to find enough to eat, to fight the temptation of drug use and glue sniffing, and to avoid adults looking for the young to exploit and abuse.” She was one who asked Pope Francis why God allows suffering to happen. It was the one question that had Francis stumped and searching for words.
Setting aside his prepared speech, Francis merely urged us to learn to weep because to weep is holy. “I invite each one of you here to ask yourself: ‘Have I learned to weep and cry when I see a child cast aside, when I see someone with a drug problem, when I see someone who has suffered abuse?’”
Then the line from him, borne from so much weathering in life: “Certain realities in life can only be seen through eyes cleansed by tears.”
Let us learn to weep again, to mourn for what is leaving our soul, to grieve over what we are losing as a people.
To weep, to sigh in great distress, with a sigh that comes straight from the heart, with a sigh that shivers the soul: all this is of God.
We who are made in the image and likeness of our moveable God, we are not immoveable. Let embrimasthai rouse us to action. Let our resolve resonate with God’s trembling inside our spirit. Let this thundering within empower us to wage war on death. By all means, let us condemn and execute the sin, not the sinner. Bearing Jesus’ compassion and love, let us allow ourselves to be so moved as to become the instruments of God’s longing and promise of life.