When our oldest daughter was in first grade, I would drop her off at school on my way to work. Our daily trip took us by a large cemetery located in middle of town. Being six years old, she had a number of questions about it which I thought I did a decent job answering. She wasn’t satisfied though and said she wanted us to visit the place where “the people’s names are written in stone.” (She had trouble saying the word “cemetery”).
So I picked her up one afternoon after school and we went there. As we were walking through and reading the inscriptions on the various stones, I was staggered by the enormity of death. (Looking back, I suppose it had something to do with being a young parent. Your mortality becomes a much bigger deal when you have young lives depending upon you). I thought of the hundreds of people whose bodies were in the ground beneath our feet. Below us was a community of husbands, wives, parents, grandparents, brothers, sisters. etc. Their lives had been just as real, vital, and important as ours. Now all of that was over for all of them. Some were taken after long, full lives. Some were taken very young, even in infancy. Others were taken in what appeared to be the prime of their lives through war, accident, or illness. They all had this much in common: all were taken! Death had made no exceptions. It had granted no exemptions.
The pain of death shot through me as I thought about how we’re born into this world, live for a while, and where does it all lead? To the grave. You marry, work hard to build a life together, and where does it end? Death. You bring children into this world, nurture, raise, and release them and where does it conclude for them? Death seems to be the unanswerable counterpoint to all of our pursuits. It seems omnipotent.
I don’t know all that Jesus was thinking or feeling when His good friend Lazarus died. John says “He was deeply moved and troubled” (11:33). He was weeping openly and unashamedly because of the pain He saw in Mary and Martha. Perhaps too, He was experiencing the confusion that comes from the dark intense clouds of grief. I don’t know. But whatever else was true I do know that when the One who said, “I am the resurrection and the life,” told Lazarus to come out of the grave, Lazarus—four days dead, came out. He came out because while death might be bigger than me or you, it is not bigger than our Lord and that is the part that matters.
When we reached the middle of the cemetery, a large white cross was there. As we paused, I asked my daughter if she knew why they put the cross there. She replied that it was the cross of Jesus. As I think back now I realize how true it all was—that in the middle of all the cemeteries we will bury our loved ones in, we need to see the cross of Jesus (and three days beyond the cross to the empty tomb), towering over everything. In the middle of life or in the middle of death, in anything and everything, we need to see the bloodied cross and the broken tomb.
Maybe we should hear the cross as well. When life’s questions can’t be answered (or life’s answers cause questions), we can satisfy our souls with words of faith. Words like His final ones, “Father, into Your hands I commit My spirit.” Words made so much more meaningful because of what He had just said, “My God, my God, why have You forsaken Me?”
Jesus didn’t have all of the answers when He walked this earth. He told His disciples on one occasion, “I do not know, only the Father does” (Matthew 24:36). (I’m not trying to to take away from Jesus’ deity but understand it). As God incarnate He chose not to have all of the answers so that He might be our sympathetic high priest. He chose to know chaos, confusion and despair so that He might be able to empathize with our experiences of these things. We see it in Gethsemane when He prayed for the cup to be taken away. We see it at the cross when He asks why He has been forsaken.
We need to remember these things when death reaches into our world. We need to realize that we’re not going to have answers to the inherently inexplicable mysteries of life and death. But what we can do is to collectively say, “Father, into Your hands we commit our spirits.” When this is done, it is not a wreath of defeat laid at the graveside of our loved one but the claim of victory. It is a proclamation that the only life worth living has culminated in the only death worth dying–death in the Lord. It is to say that we have more than beautiful, precious memories to sustain us; we have the living hope and confidence of seeing them again. And all of this is gloriously true because we serve a risen Savior.
And that is the part that matters.