The Relativization of Tragedy

Douglas P. McManaman
Homily for the 5th Sunday of Lent
April 2nd, 2020
Reproduced with Permission

Then you shall know that I am the LORD,
when I open your graves and have you rise from them

And here, in the gospel reading of today, Jesus opens the tomb of Lazarus and has him rise from it. God holds the keys of life and death. He has authority or power over life and death. And this raising of Lazarus is a revelation that Jesus is God, for he says in the book of Revelation, "I hold the keys of life and death".

We are getting at the heart of the gospel, the good news. Death has no power over Lazarus, because of Jesus, and death has no power over Jesus, because he too rose from the dead. His resurrection is the proof, the evidence, that sin and death have been conquered.

Why is this good news for us? This life is full of suffering. Some people have been hit by suffering and tragedy more than others. And some people whose lives have been visited with tragedy of some sort, such as the murder of a family member, will have their entire identity defined and characterized by that tragedy. Who they are, what they do, their entire persona, is characterized by that tragedy that took place in their lives. And many of these have chosen not to forgive the perpetrator, for example the person who murdered their son or daughter, or mother, etc. And of course, I'm not here to pronounce any kind of judgment on them, and I am certainly not going to stand here and say: "get past it". I've never suffered from a major tragedy like that and I hope I never do. But the good news of the gospel for these people is right here in this reading. God joined a human nature to himself in the Person of Jesus of Nazareth. He is fully God and fully man. And he came among us for a specific purpose: to die and rise again. He suffered a tragic death. His mother experienced a suffering that some mothers have come close to experiencing, but Mary's suffering surpasses that of all these mothers, because her Son was innocence itself, and her love for her son was more perfect than any mother's love for her child. Jesus tastes the worst of human suffering, and so too his mother.

And so now there is an identity between Jesus, on the cross, and anyone who suffers, especially those whose sufferings are particularly grievous. He dies. He is defeated by death. His followers experience a terrible loss, a crushing disappointment. Everything they hoped for is dashed. Whatever darkness human beings can experience, Christ has tasted it. But three days later he rises from the dead. He proves that he has authority over death. He relativizes death and suffering. Christ relativizes all human tragedy. Death and tragedy are no longer absolute and final, but relative.

For those who have suffered great tragedy in life, their entire identity no longer has to be defined by that tragedy. It has been made relative. Tragedy no longer has the final word over your life, over my life, over any human life. The answer to that tragedy is the resurrection of Christ. Whatever tragedy you have suffered, it is no longer final. Christ holds the keys of death and life. To believe in Christ, to believe in his resurrection, to believe he has power over death and life, is to allow oneself to truly "get past" the tragedy that you have suffered. That tragedy is now changed into a glorious moment, a victory. Christ's victory over death is every single person's victory over death, if we want it to be.

And now it is possible to say the words that Christ spoke from the cross: "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do". To forgive is to conquer the darkness that has entered into your life as a result of a person's crime, whatever that is. And so, at Easter we are offered life and death. The Lord exhorted us in Deuteronomy to choose life. He does so again here. It is up to us to choose life, the life he imparts to us in choosing to believe that he is the resurrection and the life. To refuse to believe this is to choose to believe that death and tragedy continue to have the final word over our lives. It is a choice to live in darkness. The good news is that we do not have to.