Today my title is ‘Bright Sadness’ – the silence of sorrow.. which is perhaps the most profound silence of all. We’ve read the dramatic and moving account of Jesus’ sadness at the death of his friend Lazarus and of the raising of Lazarus (don’t forget to read Larry’s notes about John 11, if you haven’t already done so). It’s a silence that we’re all completely familiar with, and will all inevitably know.
Jesus is often called the ‘Man of Sorrows’ – probably the most important characteristic of the Messiah identified in the Servant Song passages – especially in Isaiah 53:
He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity; and as one from whom others hide their faces… Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases… he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed…. the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.
When in John 11:4 Jesus says “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” He was meaning more than that people would be amazed by what was about to happen. He was meaning that what was about to happen would contribute to his own death.. Notice how his friends are alarmed (vs 8) when he proposes to go back to Judea… ‘Surely you’re not going back there… they just tried to stone you’.
He knew full well that to go to Bethany and cure Lazarus was to take a step that would end in the cross… raising someone from death – the ultimate claim to divinity, the ultimate provocation to the religious elite.
This is the first time in the Gospel of John that we hear of Jesus’ love for individual people, the first time that John, speaking of Jesus, uses the Greek words agape and philia. Agape is a preferential love for someone; a love whereby we seek his or her welfare. Philia implies the same reality but with a connotation of mutuality and friendship.
Jean Vanier (in, Drawn into the mystery of Jesus through the Gospel of John) thinks there is significance in the details of the familial relationships here:
As I read all this I cannot help but come to the conclusion, which of course comes from my experience in L’Arche with people with disabilities, that Lazarus has a handicap and probably a serious one. The word astheneia ἀσθένεια can imply this. Were the two sisters unmarried in order to look after him? The words of his sister, “the one you love is sick,“ seems to me significant. To me, these words imply “the one that you visit and bathe, the one you love with tenderness and affection, is in danger of death.” This is of course only a supposition and is in no way central to what John seeks to reveal here about the love of Jesus.
The writer wants us to appreciate the deep emotion of Jesus… It is difficult to translate the Greek verbs used – Embrimaomai is a word filled with emotion; it can mean “groaning” and can even be used for a horse snorting! Tarasso can mean agitated, anguished, troubled.
Jesus shudders, he is in anguish, he gives out a cry of pain. It is clear that Jesus is living something hard to describe. Jesus is generally serene and peaceful. We have seen him passionately angry with those who were turning the Temple into a marketplace. Here we see something else: Jesus in emotional pain. Something seems broken in him. Never have we seen Jesus so profoundly human. What has happened? Is it because he is confronted in a new way with human pain, the pain of weakness and death, the pain of ultimate separation? Is he being confronted by the pain that his own death will cause to his mother, friends and disciples?
So here, in front of Mary, he is torn between his love for her, his desire to respond to her call, and the inner certitude that if he does respond, he will be condemned to death. It is this inner tension that seems to provoke his shuddering, this deep disturbance within him, and his tears.
Bright Sadness, is a term coined by Peter Bouteneff (in Arvo Part, Out of Silence) to describe much of the quality of Arvo Part’s music. Part himself says that resurrection can only come out of death… ie in order to be filled with God, one first must become empty.. For the word/sound of the divine to enter, one must keep silence. Such asceticism has come to be thought of as joyless…. But although the pursuit of self-understanding and knowing God does indeed involve mourning, as we come increasingly to recognise our own brokenness, and that of the world – it is also the source of fulfilment and joy…. That’s why it is a bright sadness.
Bouteneff p143ff: Although suffering is by definition unpleasant, in times of grace we may recognize its potential role in emotional and spiritual growth. So, although people don’t usually seek them out, suffering, sadness, pain, are not states that they avoid at all costs. We pursue them vicariously by reading heartrending literature, looking at harrowing images, or listening to doleful music. We acknowledge, in some part of ourselves, that a life of undifferentiated bliss is simply not real life, nor will we experience any growth in it. We believe we will be enriched, and perhaps even made wiser for what we have undergone in times of despondency, struggle, or torment. “The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning . . . ,” (Ecclestiastes). Paul can even say, “We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us.”
The ancient wisdom of Ecclesiastes, dating centuries before the Common Era, tells us that there are seasons for laughter and for weeping, a time to mourn and then to dance, a time to break down and a time to build up. The arts and the sacred traditions alike, where they are true to life as we know it, will often reflect this interweaving of sorrow and consolation, brokenness and wholeness. Much of the effect of Arvo Part’s work derives from how it speaks to people’s deepest sense of the interpenetration of conflicting realities. This music says that there is no joy not tinged with grief, and no suffering beyond redemption. They are faithful both to the brokenness of the world and to our hopes for its transfiguration. They hold the two strands together, knitting them together inextricably in a kind of unity. Bright sadness has come to characterize especially seasons of abstinence, fasting periods, as in Lent… the goal is to reorient priorities, to sensitize bodies and minds to deeper, quieter things…. a chosen darkening of the night in order to brighten our perception of the stars.
For Jesus, the man of sorrows – this also means that, in the world as we know it-broken and redeemed – there is no way upward without first going downward. The way to brightness is through sadness. Jesus not only knew this, but completely implicated himself into that difficult reality by dying and rising, redeeming the world. His famous adage, taken from basic agriculture, that a grain of wheat must fall to the earth and die in order to produce fruit, illustrates the way of human life, and points also to what he himself was about to undergo. The way to glory is through the cross.
Jesus’ raising of Lazarus is a mysterious and beautiful story, and a fitting way to conclude this series of Sundays on the theme ‘Out of silence’ – the silence of the tomb, the ultimate silent context for the word of life to be spoken. I end with Bouteneff’s comment in which he attempts to condense the message that many people ‘receive’ from Arvo Part’s music – and which characterises well our experience of ‘God with us’:
I know that there is brokenness and terrible suffering in the world.
I hear you, and am with you in it.
I also know that suffering is not the last word.
The last word is light.