A basic qualification for sainthood, in the conventional understanding of the word today, is being dead. A saint is one who we believe has passed through the shroud, the veil or the sheet that covers our faces, (Isaiah 25.7) separating our earthly world from the true reality of God's kingdom, into the glory of heaven. The life and teaching of a saint is able to point us towards an understanding of what that kingdom is founded on, to encourage and inspire us so that 'with clean hands and a pure heart', we may 'ascend the hill of the Lord' (Psalm 24.3-4).
Grief, sadness and pain are all very much part of our daily lives. Everyone experiences all three, it's part of being human. And there is no event in human life more likely to combine all three than death. Whether the death of a friend or family member or the death of someone remote and unknown to us reported in the news, death inspires fear and dread. The thought of our own death or the consequences of the death of someone close to us is painful and worrying to us. With the death of someone well known to us, part of ourselves also dies. We are, after all, partly the product of our relationships. In different situations, different company, we often seem to be different people. We say that with those we love we can 'be ourselves' but how we relate to others is no less a part of our 'self'. Grief at the loss of a relationship, through death or other separation, allows us to readjust, to 'get ourselves together'.
Martha and Mary must have been feeling pain and grief at the death of their brother Lazarus. Both women as good as blame Jesus for his death. 'If you had been here he wouldn't have died!’ Martha, solid and practical, took it upon herself to keep things running smoothly, welcoming the well-wishers, for they had many friends. Mary on the other hand showed her grief in her desire to shut herself up in the house. When Jesus arrived she had not come out to meet him. When eventually Martha discretely called her out, she threw herself at Jesus feet, wailing. Those friends standing around also used Jesus as a scapegoat for their grief. 'He can cure the blind, so why couldn't he save Lazarus?' Grief affects different people in different ways.
Today's readings centre on this issue of what follows death, the last great mystery of life. All point to belief in a life that far exceeds our expectations following this brief earthly existence. A time when 'the sovereign Lord will wipe away all tears from their faces' (Isaiah 25.8) 'He will wipe every tear from their eyes.' (Revelation 21.4) Isaiah uses the image of a feast, a banquet prepared by God for all peoples, foretelling the inclusion of Gentiles, people like us, in God's heavenly kingdom.
St. John, in Revelation, speaks of a new heaven and a new earth, where the old way of things, with all its grief, pain and tears, gives way to a beautiful new order where 'the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them.' Both passages reassure us that for those who trust in God, who believe in his son, there is no need to be anxious about death. We ourselves are invited to that feast, living with God, 'with no more death, or mourning or crying or pain.' when the old order of things will pass away.
In raising Lazarus from the dead Jesus calls out in a loud voice. He controls the scene, in front of an audience he makes sure that all he does is seen and understood. "Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me." (John 11.42) What a sight it must have been, the emergence of Lazarus, still dressed in the grave clothes, strips of linen and a shroud, a living mummy! How theatrical! What a performance! Which of course was just what it was meant to be, a demonstration of the power of God over death. It was particularly important to Jesus that the people should believe in the power he held. The return of Lazarus to earthly life showed the power of belief in God is able not only to gain salvation in life after our death to this world, but also empowers us to work for the salvation of the kingdom of the here and now. St. John doesn't just speak of a new heaven but a new earth as well.
For people to believe in the power of the Holy Spirit they need to see it in action, and although the life, teaching and healing of Jesus represents the most perfect example of this power at work, the life and example of Saints shows us what is possible for mortals like ourselves. Through the life and witness of the Saints, including both the 'dead' Saints, and those people living the faith in the manner described by St Paul, our fear of death is countered by the hope of salvation promised to those who trust in God, so that, free from anxiety, we can play our part in establishing the new earth.