ABIDE WITH ME
Sunday April 2, 2017
About this time last year, I was at Wesley Medical Center working as the overnight chaplain on call. I received a page around two o’clock in the morning. A nurse in the Medical Intensive Care Unit explained that one of her elderly patients was being placed on “comfort care.”
This meant that the woman was dying and was about to be removed from the ventilator which was keeping her body alive.
The nurse said that the woman’s only family, an older brother had been at her side for many days. He had said his goodbyes and had gone home to rest. And the nurse didn’t want her patient to die alone.
For one hour that night, miraculously, no pages came in, and I spent that hour sitting vigil with an unconscious woman I had never met, as she lay dying.
And I count it an extraordinary privilege to have been able to do so.
I stroked the woman’s cheeks and forehead. I read her psalms and prayed:
“Almighty Father, look on this your servant lying in great weakness, and comfort her with the promise of life everlasting.”
I rubbed lotion on the woman’s hands and combed her hair. I talked to her—speculated on the things she had done and the people she had loved.
“We sinners beseech you to hear us, Lord Christ: That it may please you to deliver the soul of this your servant from the power of evil, and from eternal death.”
I caressed her hands. I sang to her.
I did these things because these were the things I had done with my grandmother, my aunt and my own mother as they lay dying—these are thing so many of you have done with your own loved ones—abiding with them through long hours of day and night.
And it suddenly occurred to me that sitting vigil with that beautiful woman that night was just another way of spending an hour abiding in the Garden of Gethsemane with Jesus. It is the last thing that Jesus asked of his disciples–to abide with him—wait with him through the long hours before he was to die.
It is a human yearning that we express in the words of the Anglican hymn—Abide with Me. The need and request for presence—of God in our lives at particularly difficult moments—such as at times of death. We sang it yesterday, in fact at the celebration of the life of John Howell. We also heard these familiar words:
“I am Resurrection and I am Life’, says the Lord. ‘Whoever has faith in me shall have life, and. . . shall not die forever.’”
The words that we heard today from the Gospel according to John, are familiar to us. They are the words we hear at every funerary and memorial rite in our church. And the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead is often read at those services as well.
The power of that narrative and its language is partly in its familiarity—like an old friend that keeps showing up to keep us company at the critical moments in our life.
But too, their power comes from the promise that God has made to God’s people through the life and death of Jesus: that God will abide with us—just as we abide with God even as the darkness deepens and eventide falls.
The Book of Common Prayer tells us that the “liturgy for the dead is an Easter liturgy—It finds its meaning in the resurrection. The liturgy is characterized by joy of the belief in God’s eternal loving presence in our lives.”
And in a couple of weeks we will celebrate in a very big way–that part of the story of our Lord which marks the anniversary of his glorious resurrection. Because that is the anniversary of our glorious salvation.
However, that is not all there is to the story of Jesus. To only attend to the celebratory highlights of his divinity would cause us to miss out on an important part of faith.
For Jesus is not only fully divine. Like us, Jesus, was fully human. And for me, one of the beautiful parts of today’s reading from the gospel is how it illustrates in poignant detail exactly how human Jesus was.
Jesus knows that he has a job to do—he knows the miracle that he must perform to save the souls of his people. He knows, but no one else does.
So, when Jesus is told that his beloved friend, Lazarus is dying—Jesus acts in a way that is inexplicable in the minds of everyone else–he deliberately stays away.
And Lazarus dies. And then Jesus says, “Lazarus is dead. Let us go to him.” What happens next in the story demonstrates the cost of being human among humans.
Upon returning to Bethany Jesus is confronted first by Martha and Mary, whom he loved as he loved Lazarus. “You could have saved his life,” they say to him. And I believe an unspoken part of their complaint is the expectation that even if Jesus could not have saved his friend’s life—at least he should have been present with his friend through the end of it. And the depth of their grief, the grief of the other mourners moves Jesus, troubles him.
“And Jesus wept.”
Jesus is so human that he can empathize with the pain of death that those who are left behind experience.
And this, too, is recognized in the Episcopal funerary rite. For just as the notes for burial reflect on the joy of entering into eternal life—there is also an acknowledgement of the human cost:
“This joy (in eternal life),” says the Book of Common Prayer, “does not make human grief unchristian. The very love we have for each other brings deep sorrow when we are parted by death. Jesus himself wept at the grave of his friend.”
Our sorrow at encountering death does not deny or belie our faith. Sorrow and grief are part of our ability to love God—it is a part of loving God’s people. And as human beings we carry the full weight and cost of love. Just as we carry the full weight and privilege of love.
Next Sunday, we will embark on the longest week of the year: Our turn to wait, keep watch, and abide with our Lord.
It will begin with high Hosannas being sung as we process into the church waving palm leaves to reenact Jesus’ triumphant return to Jerusalem.
But by the middle of that service, emotions will take a turn as we read aloud the Passion of our Lord. And in stark contrast to our entry to the church, we will leave in utter silence.
Services on Monday and Tuesday evening will be contemplative.
On Wednesday, we will experience the deepening weight of impending darkness through the service of Tenebrae: On Maundy Thursday, we will—as Jesus did—take turns washing the feet of our brothers and sisters. And at the end of that service we will watch as the altar and sanctuary are stripped bare—
—in the chapel, the ambry door will be left open—to reveal a small dark tomb—now empty of Christ’s body and blood—and the Christ candle will be extinguished.
Vigil will begin. All night and through the following morning, people will take turns abiding in the chapel. The vigil will end at noon, the hour of our Lord’s death. Later, that evening, the youth will enact the Passion. And then, in complete darkness early, early Sunday morning…
Well, I don’t want to give anything away.
But here’s the thing:
The chasm, that darkening, deepening, space between Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday is what helps me feel something of the weight—the gravity—the why of those two Sundays.
By abiding with Christ through his human trials, we learn to trust that our God, always and evermore abides with us.
Through enduring the pain of loss and the grief of death—we come to more fully appreciate the cost and the promise of Resurrection.
And we do so “in the certainty that ‘neither death, nor life, or angels, nor principalities,
nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth,
nor anything else in all creation
will ever be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.’”