When Jesus saw [Mary] 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.” Jesus began to weep. (John 11:33-35)
Thinking about the Sunday Gospel in the light of recent news about climate change suggests that one big gift the church could provide at this time is to lead us and support us in grieving.
The Gospel in this week’s lectionary is the story about Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. Even though Jesus delayed his travel to Bethany two days after receiving the news of his friend’s illness so that “the Son of God may be glorified through it”, and even though he knows when he arrives in Bethany that Lazarus is dead and he will bring him back to life, he weeps at his friend’s death and at the shared grief of Lazarus’s family and friends. The way John includes this detail of Jesus’ grief indicates that it is an essential part of the story. Can we appreciate the joy of resurrection without fully experiencing grief over a death? Jesus’ delay in arriving allows everyone, including himself, to truly acknowledge the death of someone they loved and to experience grief.
On Monday of this week, the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) released their most recent report on the impacts of climate change. Because their work involves a consensus process, the IPCC reports are fairly conservative; the most dire predictions of climate scientists do not make it into these reports. But the report was disturbing enough to be spotlighted by news organizations that have up to now given little emphasis to the impacts of climate change.
Along with that big report this week, we had disturbing news from the daily reports of atmospheric carbon dioxide measurements from the Mauna Loa observatory. Daily averages the past week have been above 400 ppm, a level we first reached last May. (Carbon dioxide is one of the greenhouse gases; CO2 levels need to be at or below 350 ppm to continue to sustain life as we have known it.)
While there did seem to be some fresh concern about climate change after release of the IPCC report this week, it doesn’t seem to be a major concern for most people and certainly isn’t a cause of grief for most. Even among people who accept the scientific evidence and express some degree of concern, there is a sort of existential denial of the situation. We continue to plan and live as if nothing will happen in our lifetimes or even in our children’s lifetimes. We continue to give priority to the same personal and political issues we would give priority if we could plan on climate stability. And we certainly aren’t grieving the great losses we know (or that we at least know on some level) we face.
In his new book Reality, Grief, Hope: Three Urgent Prophetic Tasks, Walter Brueggemann writes (p. 79): The prophetic task, amid a culture of denial, is to embrace, model, and practice grief, in order that the real losses in our lives can be acknowledged.
Was Lazarus really dead? Jesus’ grief cuts through any denial of the death; it was real. The resurrection of Lazarus is meaningful – and possible -- because he was really dead. Brueggemann says (p. 83) that grief “turns loss to energy for newness”.
Might grief for the losses we face and the losses people in other places are already experiencing allow us to see something new that our denial keeps us from seeing? If the only hope we have is hope that nothing will change, our hope is empty. We can’t see whatever new and unfamiliar sort of hope we might find until we do the work of grieving. In a time and place where denial of death and loss is widespread, the church can lead us in grieving what we are losing so we can see our new reality more clearly.