("The Raising of Lazarus," Vincent Van Gogh (1890), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.”
The Lazarus story is one of the most powerful and richest stories of the Gospel, and a favorite of many. It's one of my favorites, too, but for a reason not everyone can "get."
I'm intimately and exquisitely acquainted with "that stench."
Several rotations in my residency through the regional Medical Examiner's office got me very, very, acquainted with that stench. That's why I never had any desire to do forensic pathology and no desire to be subspecialty boarded in Forensic Pathology. With surgical pathology, and clinical pathology, I get to help live people in a more direct way. I've never understood the fascination with shows like CSI, because, as I've said many times, "Television ain't smellovision."
But I remember that stench. It usually came from the cases we affectionately called the "floaters" and "stinkers"--people fished out of the Lake of the Ozarks or the Missouri River after a few days "under," who floated to the top when they started to putrify and make gas bubbles, or people who did themselves in out in the woods and weren't found for a few days or weeks.
Van Gogh made Lazarus a very nice artistic shade of green, but he's a little on the scrawny side. What I remember are bright shamrock greens and violaceous purples and nasty dried jet blacks where the 95 degree sun beat down on the deceased for a few days, and bloating that made a "punt possum" by the side of the road look "normal."
The stench. Lord have mercy, the stench. No amount of wintergreen oil under the nose, no amount of stogie or pipe smoke (the old timer forensics boys used to smoke a pipe or a cigar during a post--Hepatitis B be damned) could even begin to touch the level of reeking in the room. I even got to the place where I could discern dead bowel vs. dead brain vs. dead muscle meat. The stench went home with me. It was in my hair, on my skin, in my truck, and definitely in my nostrils. I felt sometimes like I could smell it for days. I'm sure part of it was my imagination, but it was that vivid.
So every time I hear this story read in church, or read it in my personal prayer time, the first--the VERY first thing my brain does is remind me of "that stench." My nostrils literally smell it again. When I imagine this story, I doubt there were too many onlookers very close. I imagine as they approached the tomb, even the big rock wasn't holding it back...and for Jesus to ask it to be opened? I doubt there were many people jumping up to help with that one!
Not to mention, I am pretty sure in my own mind Jesus himself was gagging all through his soliloquy and on the verge of retching himself, if he hadn't thrown his socks up already. I think every artistic rendition of this has omitted the vomit that must certainly have been at the scene.
Ok, everyone take a deep breath from this incredibly graphic gross moment.
I went into vivid detail, because for me, it speaks to the power of what happens in this story. You see, we are talking about resurrection to a degree that can barely be imagined. All of the art I've ever seen about this story, frankly, is too understated and "nice." We are talking about rawness of logarithmic magnitude here--not just in Lazarus' resurrection itself, but in the anger Martha displays at Jesus ("If you'd have been here, my brother wouldn't have died!")...the angst of Jesus himself in his tears...the mixture of scorning, mocking, disbelief, and hope in the crowd of onlookers, and the sheer incredulous-ness and confusion Lazarus must have had himself, awakening to the residual stench, and the fear he must have had waking up and realizing he is in a shroud. Burial clothes. He may have bound the dead for burial in his own community at one time or another and could have been rather intimately acquainted with the trappings of a Jewish burial.
Everything about this story is vivid, and loud, and raw, and pungent.
But really, that's what resurrection is.
Resurrection, as much as we imagine it, and as much as art renders it, is not gentle, shiny, happy stuff, with "magic wand" riffs of music in the background, and Tinkerbell flitting around. It is a dirty, smelly business, with the odor of death in the air and sticky, icky, leaky body fluids spilling out of it.
When I sit and ponder the life changing events in my own life and the lives of those I love, so many of them have an aspect of "recovery" to them. The word "recovery" these days doesn't get to carry its full value--we tend to think of it solely in terms of addictions. Granted, some of the stories I am recalling are stories of those close to me who have recovered from various addictions, but "recovery" can also mean adjusting to a death in the family, leaving an abuser, surviving a job loss and re-entering the work force, or a whole host of things.
Everyone I know has a recovery story. In fact, the closer I am to someone, the more recovery stories I know about them.
We have a tendency not to tell our recovery stories--mostly, I suppose, because to tell the story, we have to admit some aspect of our own human failings. But I can't remember a single recovery story anyone has told me, that their failings in it were much of a concern of mine. It was the "resurrection" part of their story that hooks me. I see them transform as the tell it--their eyes light up and their face glows, and I almost want to cry because you can see the love of Christ in them so brightly.
But when I think back to my own recovery stories, the beginnings of them did not seem a bit "transformative." They are a lot like being Lazarus awakening in his tomb. I could still smell the stench of where I'd been, both from my part of wrongdoing in it, and how others might have treated me poorly in it. The beginnings were claustrophobic and fearful. There's a fear of feeling that burial cloth on one's face, one's hands and feet bound--that "resurrection" part isn't even in the picture yet. It's only when I responded to others calling me out of that tomb, and letting others unbind my hands and feet that I could pull the shroud off my own face.
But for me, the last one to go was to get the stench of my own decomposition out of my nose--and when I occasionally fall into doubt about my own recovery stories, it's the first one to return. It's just human nature, I think.
It's why I also need to be mindful to the joy in the recovery stories of others. I don't always know when their own nostrils are being a little stench-ridden, and being part of a community that shares these stories, whether it's home, work, church, or our other social groups, is to see the joy in the resurrections of others and be vicariously happy in it. I can help call others out of the tomb, and I can help unbind the hands and feet of others. Ultimately, though, I think it's up to each of us to pull the shroud off of our own faces, with God's help.