The marvellous abyss of love and understanding

The marvellous abyss of love and understanding
Henry Tanner, The Resurrection of (1896) Musee d’Orsay, Paris
The passage from scripture reporting that Jesus “groaned in the spirit and was troubled” when he approached the tomb of Lazarus recalls to my mind a deep memory from childhood. When I was about 15 I was present when someone discovered the dead body of a neighbor child, age 10, in the woods near our house. I was a friend of the dead boy’s older brother. The police and medical personnel were called; they went to investigate and the draped body was brought out on a gurney; the police and the medical personnel stood around the gurney while the father was called to come from work. I sat with a few friends on the curb about 30 feet from the scene, stunned but curious. Eventually the father arrived, got out of the car and ran to gurney; after a moment or two of whispered conversation the police lifted the draped sheet for an identification of the body and I heard the father emit a groan the likes of which I have never heard before nor since. His head and shoulders collapsed in grief. I left immediately because I knew that curiosity was no longer appropriate to the situation. I was not quite sure what I had heard or witnessed, other than an unendurable sadness.
When I hear this gospel my mind plunges down to that trace of memory and I realize that there exist a bond of love that is near unspeakable. The father could not have simply said “yes, that is my son,” he could only groan.  So too Jesus did more than speak about his love for Lazarus, he groaned, but his groan contained more than the unendurable sadness that betokens our human condition (sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt). His groan arises out of a “marvelouss abyss of love and understanding,” saith Blessed John Cardinal Newman. Newman preached a sermon on the raising of Lazarus (found here). At the opening of the sermon Newman hits a powerful point:

why did our Lord weep at the grave of Lazarus? He knew He had power to raise him, why should He act the part of those who sorrow for the dead? In attempting any answer to this inquiry, we should ever remember that the thoughts of our Saviour’s mind are far beyond our comprehension. Hardly do we enter into the feelings and meaning of men like ourselves, who are gifted with any special talent; even human philosophers or poets are obscure from the depth of their conceptions. What then must be the marvellous abyss of love and understanding in Him who, though partaker of our nature, is the Son of God?

“The marvellous abyss of love and understanding.” yes that is it. That is the origin of grief. I thought of the abyss of love between that father and son on a dreadful day in 1967 in Alexandria , Virginia. I stood at the surface and witnessed its powerful depth.
Newman explains that Jesus wept first of all, “from spontaneous tenderness; from the gentleness and mercy, the encompassing loving-kindness and exuberant fostering affection of the Son of God for His own work, the race of man.” But also because he saw the Father’s good creation, life, “turned to evil,” and “the fine gold become dim,” that is he the “contrast between Adam, in the day in which he was created, innocent and immortal, and man as the devil had made him, full of the poison of sin and the breath of the grave.” And then Newman goes deeper — “Christ was come to do a deed of mercy, and it was a secret in His own breast. All the love which He felt for Lazarus was a secret from others. He was conscious to Himself He loved him; but none could tell but He how earnest that affection was.”
The groan reflected something more than grief — for “Christ’s was a different contemplation; yet attended with its own peculiar emotion. I mean the feeling that He had power to raise up Lazarus. .  .  .  .our Lord and Saviour knew that, while all seemed so dreary and hopeless, in spite of the tears and laments of his friends, in spite of the corpse four days old, of the grave and the stone which was upon it, He had a spell which could overcome death, and He was about to use it. Is there any time more affecting than when you are about to break good news to a friend who has been stricken down by tidings of ill?”
Pope picks up on this theme of the mystery of Christ’s interiority and his compassion for Lazarus. He said during a general audience: “In so many of these episodes we see appearing from Jesus’ words the expression of a will and a power to which he interiorly appealed and which he expressed, one might say, with the greatest naturalness. It was as though the power to give people health, healing and even to bring the dead back to life, belonged to his own mysterious condition.”
Pope John Paul II notes that “we find a clear confirmation of Jesus’ words, ‘My Father is working still and I am working’ (Jn 5:17). Moreover, it could be said that we have here an anticipated demonstration of what Jesus will say in the upper room during his Last Supper conversation with the apostles concerning his relations with the Father, and, indeed, concerning his identity in being with the Father. The Gospels show by various miracles-signs that the divine power at work in Jesus Christ extends beyond the human world and is revealed as a power of dominion also over the forces of nature.” (I Say to You, Arise!  General Audience  November 18, 1987)
A power  rises out of the abyss of human love and often we do not see it or know it; grief may bring it forth; if we do come to see it, paradoxically, then it is a moment of grief, and therefore borders on weakness or despair. Also arising out of love, the groan of Jesus indicates strength and hope. In the gospel story of the raising of Lazarus that power is brought forth in a great wonder and sign indicating the power of God. “I am the Resurrection and the Life.” So we return to Newman to read: “Wherever there is a heart to answer, ‘Lord, I believe,’ there Christ is present. There our Lord vouchsafes to stand, though unseen—whether over the bed of death or over the grave; whether we ourselves are sinking or those who are dear to us. Blessed be his name! nothing can rob us of this consolation.”


Join us!

* indicates required