“Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
For years, these words of Martha have calmly laid still on the page of my Bible. However, this year, as the Gospel reading for January 4th, two days before the Feast of Epiphany and five days before the debris flowed in Montecito, these words keep interrupting my thinking at inconvenient moments and get caught in my throat, dry and bitter.
And while I still do not understand what it means that Martha, legitimately grief-stricken and raw with anger, runs out to meet with Jesus and goes on with what reads like a wonkish exchange about the doctrine of resurrection, what amazes and confounds my imagination is how she—in the midst of personal tragedy and perhaps even fighting extreme disappointment in Jesus, the trusted family friend who is inexplicably late—ends the conversation with this declaration:
“Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”
What is that, but an epiphany?
Despite being deeply bound by the societal constraints of being a woman in an ancient Middle-Eastern culture, and her own predispositions towards sensibility and propriety (unlike her free-spirit sister Mary), God saw fit to give Martha the opportunity to utter these radical, blow-the-roof-off words. Her heart must have been an open mansion, ready for her Lord. Through divine insight, she was able to find her way into realizing that Jesus was the guy all those prophets had talked about, the guy who was the hinge in history who would bring both justice and mercy….and yet…the same guy who came two days later than he had to be, and the same guy who could have healed her brother and prevented all of this distress as He had for so many others in their community. Why, Lord, why?!
It is true that the Gospel of John does not leave the reader in this uncomfortable tension for long because Jesus is revealed to have his heart broken with grief and goes on to resurrect Lazarus from the dead. However, because so often we are inclined to leap to these heartwarming resolutions, despite the fact that so much of our actual lives don’t seem to manifest in quite the same tidy ways, today I want to stay in this liminal space, this space of not knowing, this space between what has already happened and what comes next. Why? Because Martha did not know how things were going to turn out when she–perhaps through gritted teeth or in trembling surrender beyond what her entire being could conceive—confessed her faith in her Lord.
Indeed, who is this God that I call ‘Lord’? Yes, I trust in a God who weeps with me in my sorrows, and yes, I pursue a God who I believe can bring life into the places of death. But, I am learning first-hand that this God is also a God whose ways are hidden and whose paths often appear incomplete. This God does not sanitize how things are, or promise a life that reads like Whig history, ever progressing with inevitable improvement. Instead, this God appears to be a God of transformation—where waiting in liminal spaces is not only part of the deal, but the very parameters that form us.
Sometimes, my son asks me to tell him Bible stories “from my mouth” – that is, in the oral tradition. No reading. Just good ol’ fashion story-telling. I think he was hooked after I once told him my own crazy version of Elijah’s contest against the prophets of Baal—all kitted out with goofy sound effects. Sometimes, he asks for a specific story (e.g., “tell me the one about Mordecai and Haman…”) but usually, he invites me to pick one myself–with the caveat that he prefers stories from the Old Testament because there is more action, he says. So I flip through my mind’s Rolodex of Sunday School Bible stories and inevitably I conjure a tale about Joseph or Joshua, Moses or Daniel, and the whole thing starts to sound like Hebrews 11’s list of Israelite heroes.
There are stories of people that I have failed to tell my son, though, because I do not know enough about their lives. At the end of Hebrews 11, the author regales us with an action-packed summary of all those who “through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became might in war, put foreign armies to flight.” These are the stories that my son savors.
The author then shifts gears and reminds us that there were others too—perhaps, those we would prefer to forget: “Women received their dead by resurrection. Others were tortured…others suffered mocking and flogging…they were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented—of whom the world was not worthy…..Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised….”
These faithful people were brought down paths that were incomplete. Things didn’t always make sense. How do I tell my son these troubling stories? And yet, how can I not tell him their stories? For they too are part of the cloud of witnesses that are supposed to bolster us to persevere. How can I not tell him when their stories are so much more like our own—incomplete, partial, often hidden from our usual sense-making?
In the Christian church, the season of Epiphany is rooted in celebrating the visitation of the scholarly Magi to the Christ Child. These first pilgrims, wholly unchurched and whose science of the enchanted cosmos and study of ancient prophecies led them to trek after a brilliant star across the continents, arrived seeking and bearing gifts for the King. Not knowing much about these Magi, I love imagining these three fellows on the journey, comparing the gifts they have packed. This is how I see it:
Two of the magi are feeling pretty good about what they have chosen to bring– the first has gold to represent kingship, and the second has frankincense to represent holiness. Those gifts seem like solid home runs. The third magi, however….the third magi has packed myrrh, an ointment commonly used for embalming, thereby representing death. One magi whispers: Psst, Magi #3, this is not recommended gifting material by Miss Manners. The other remaining magi rolls his eyes, “Good job, Magi #3. Way to go, man. You are a serious party pooper.”
I can’t help but wonder who the Magi of Myrrh was and what he understood. It’s easy to comprehend taking a pilgrimage to seek out the Chosen One who is supposed to unlock the mysteries of the universe. It’s another thing to doggedly pursue the chance to lay eyes on a prophesied King who, your career’s worth of studying shows, is going to need help with a respectable burial, and then have the guts to bring a present that reminds everyone about that unpleasant reality.
Magi of Myrrh, how much did you know, and how much did you not know? What was it like to travel all those miles and months, carrying your jar of myrrh, burdened with some profound sense that the Sacred One was going to die an untimely death? Did you feel like crying at inconvenient times as I do when I think about those who have been taken in an untimely way? What did your fellow magi think of you when they saw your gift? Did they know that death was foretold as well? Or did they just think you were a nut?
Magi of Myrrh, I know this is probably not how things work in JK Rowling’s world, but will you be my patronus? Help me to have courage to dwell in that liminal space of not knowing how things are going to turn out and still show up for the arduous journey. In whatever limited understanding I may have, help me to utter as Martha did: “You are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” Help me not be afraid of the often unbearable tension between the promises of God and life’s sorrows and losses. Help me carry my jar to the King too.