I’ve never smelled rotting flesh, but I imagine Martha was not simply being stubborn or naive when she resisted the Lord’s instruction to “remove the stone” from Lazarus’ tomb. After all, he had been in there already four days – death had claimed his mortal body, it seems, because Jesus deliberately delayed his return journey to Bethany.
In the ancient world, the custom was, in order to keep scavenging animals from feasting on mortal remains, a body would be placed inside a sealed tomb to allow it to decompose. After a year, they’d remove the stone to collect his bones and place them in an ossuary. That was the custom. That was what was supposed to happen to Lazarus – become bones in a box.
But, Jesus, the Resurrection and the Life, came. He stood outside Lazarus’ grave with tears still wet on his cheeks; utterly confident in the Father’s attention and power, he commanded that they “Remove the stone.” And rightly, logically, reasonably, Martha protests – “But, Lord, there will be a stench!” You must know that inside that sealed tomb is death and rot and nothing else!
But this is Jesus; this is what he came for – to stand outside our hearts-become-sepulchers, and to tell us to remove the stones that seal them closed. Because for fallen man, his hardened heart has become his most isolating prison; and shame has turned his fleshy core sclerotic to the point of no escape.
He came to set the captives free – but we don’t realize or grasp that the rescue mission is meant to happen IN me, not merely around me, or for me. And all of Lent, He’s been whispering tenderly and continuously: Roll away the stone that covers your heart – I invite you to trust me and disrobe your heart – to take off the costume of the “self-perfected disciple” and to stand before me in vulnerability.
But we struggle mightily to take off the masks we’ve glued onto our faces – to push the massive boulder away from the tomb entrance precisely because, like Martha, we say, “But LORD, there will be a stench!” I am so afraid you can’t handle what’s broken and dead in me!
Jesus desires to do for you and me this Easter what he did for Lazarus, that is, step inside the tomb! Nobody goes into tombs, unless they’re dead, and nobody certainly comes out of tombs once they’re sealed! Only Jesus, Life itself, steps into death with confidence. He steps inside the tomb to call Lazarus forth…but he wanted to step all the way in, to go all the way to where Adam and Eve were hiding and lost in shame – at the bottom of the pit of death. To do that, our Bridegroom took to himself our lot, our death, in order to step all the way inside the tomb – that tomb, your tomb, my tomb, every tomb and every place of death. THIS is what is so remarkable about Easter – this is the intimacy of Easter!
The Bridegroom descended into Hell as if he were on a rescue mission searching for his Bride. “The Lord put on flesh, so that he could die, so that he could look in the last, last place. And there, in Sheol, he found them: deaf, mute, ashamed, dead. And the Lord brought out the man and woman and led them once more to paradise” (David Fagerberg, Theologia Prima, 19-20). Like a Bridegroom carrying his Bride across the threshold, Jesus, robed in human flesh, steps out of the tomb naked and victorious, carrying, as it were, lost and frightened humanity back into the heavenly sanctuary.
The intimacy of Easter is this: that once the stone is rolled away from the tomb, he does not hold his nose; once the mask is off our face and the makeup of self-perfection and pride is removed, he does not turn away; once we strip naked, removing our armor, our finery, jewelry and ornaments – once we take off the costume of “Me,” and he beholds us in our poverty and truth, he does not hang his face or turn away! No, He steps inside the tomb! Our. Jesus. Draws. Nearer. Ever nearer. Always closer!
He’s not afraid of our long shadows, but boldly enters into the darkness to lay his body down in death with us so that the Father may call life out of us.
For so many souls this Easter, their hearts have become not merely tombs but cemeteries. Places where so many secrets, wounds, shame, pain, sins, guilt, and broken memories are buried within vaults of fear – “But Lord, there will be a stench!” Like he called Lazarus specifically by name, and Mary Magdalene specifically by name, Jesus desires to call our death specifically by name back to life so that every tomb in us can become a womb. And not just any womb – but a place where HE, the Living One, the Divine Mercy, can be born and given. At the Father’s command, Divine Mercy gives birth to Jesus in us – our tombs become his womb, his manger, his dwelling place, his Temple.
This is how the week of the Bridegroom comes to its climax – with tombs becoming wombs, and flowering like gardens!
Father Patrick Schultz is a priest of the Diocese of Cleveland and he currently serves as the Parochial Vicar of Communion of Saints Parish in Cleveland Heights, OH. He attended Theology of the Body I course in the fall of 2017, and hopes to attend other courses in the future.