It was the early autumn of 2012. As dusk faded to darkness on the farm, rain fell in misty sheets, dropping a veil across the landscape. It dripped off the eaves of the garage where I stood with my mother. Arms crossed against the chill of the October evening, we looked together across the short, still-green lawn that rolled away toward one of the old tobacco barns. Inside the house, my father’s breathing was shallow. His awareness was fleeting. His eyes were blind. His bones were hollowed out. “If they found a cure today, Mom. . . I wouldn’t rush him off for treatment.” “No,” she replied. In quietude, we agreed; he had come too far. We wouldn’t wish for him to suffer to this point again. “I can’t help but think of Lazarus,” I said. “He had to die twice.” In hushed tones, we talked about the horror of it. Dying once was more than enough—for all involved. Up until that moment, I had always thought of the miracle of the resurrection of Lazarus purely as a marvelous gift to the dead man and his loved ones. Staring out into the darkness of that new night, I suddenly felt quite mixed about the whole affair.
On 3 December of this past year, I sat in a dermatology clinic, waiting to see a specialist. My cracking, bleeding skin, which seemed to turn to fire each night, was robbing me of sleep, waking me through heavy sedatives, and making unreasonable demands on my family. Rob waited in the office with me, both of us silently desperate to stop this. My phone rang. I have a policy never to answer my phone in a doctor’s office or to excuse myself from a person to do so, but something in me told me to at least see who it was. It was my mother. When I answered, her speech slurred across the line like a finger drawn through wet ink. “Ellen. I think I’ve had a stroke.”
Thus, Lent seemed to begin in tandem with Advent. While children shine a spotlight on your sin and your insufficiencies, aging parents amp that up to a whole new level. Eldercare during and after a life-changing medical event comes with demands similar to those of a new baby: sleepless nights, long hours, an abundance of stress, and the need to work like a farmhand as you wonder what the heck you are doing while having somebody's life in your hands to a large extent. Except this is not the hope of new life, which generally progresses from dependence to self-sufficiency. This is the heartache of death knocking at the door, and the expected progression is just the reverse. While the needs of most babies are relatively simple, adult dependents come with adult demands: banking, taxes, bills, townhouses which need to be packed up and emptied, cars that need to be sold. . . ! Suddenly you must manage all of this and do a thousand other things for them besides. Given that the only “end in sight” is difficult to contemplate, one would like to be able to say that all of their feelings and attitudes are unfailingly charitable and loving. I cannot say that. All of this has presented a wide variety of opportunities to become aware of my sin. The cycle goes something like this: succeed, fail, regret, repent, repeat. All this long winter, I have seen how starkly physical brokenness can illuminate spiritual brokenness.
I am not exempt. With spring coming, my own skin is an increasing torment. At night, I take more sedatives and pack ice around my body in hope of sleep.
But God preserves. He heals and balms. He gives into nothing. He forgives. He comforts. He provides material help in the material world. He grows us up. He illuminates His Gospel of hope.
Jesus loved Lazarus, and in that love, he called him to give to His people an incredibly sacrificial gift. So badly did we need to “see the glory of God” that Jesus had the tomb of his beloved friend unsealed. Leaning into the stench of death, he called to him, stirring his decaying remains, waking his dormant elements to answer to their King, beckoning him to come out of the grave—to be resurrected. It was beautiful! But Lazarus would have to die again. In this, the illustration that his life became would cost him dearly. So many of the gifts that illuminate the hope of Christ are sacrificial ones.
As for me, these days, I find myself undone by the Eucharist. As I reach out my painful, cracking hands to take the Bread, I see the Lord of hosts consenting, once again, to enter into a broken and often-bleeding body. He comes to we who live in the shadow of death. Amen. Through this Sacrament of the Altar, we participate now in the Glory we too will one day fully inhabit. What Lazarus reflected, Christ lives in the full flower of. He has reached into death and called us out; when once we die, He himself will “unbind [us] and let [us] go”.
Ellen Vest is the only gal in a house full of guys: Rob, Corin, and Larson the guinea pig.