Since the second Sunday of Lent we have been journeying with Jesus through the eyes of John the Evangelist, the writer of the Fourth Gospel. John does not follow the same gospel structure, first developed by the Evangelist Mark, and followed with some additions and variations of emphasis, by both Matthew, and Luke. Instead, John paints a purely theological picture of Jesus. John’s theological picture of Jesus, his identity, and his mission, jumps out at us as he builds his Gospel around seven stories, offered as stories concerning the Signs of the Kingdom.
Each story is followed by Jesus’ own discursive interpretation as a way of teaching of his disciples. The overarching theme in John is Jesus’ commandment: love one another. For Jesus, this commandment expresses a three-fold sequence uniting the cosmos:
As the Father has loved me, and I love the Father; so I, and the Father through me, love you; therefore you must love one another.
As the Father and I are one, and you and I are one, so the Father and you are one.
For John, love is the principal sign of the presence of the Kingdom among us.
At https://www.facebook.com/azcathedral?ref=hl and here at my blogsite at you can review my treatment of the last three Sundays Gospel readings: the woman at the well, the healing of the one blind since birth, and today, the raising of Lazarus. In each I have employed the metaphor of the play, divided in two several acts or scenes in order to unpack and explore the complexity within each Sign of the Kingdom story. Any metaphor, however fruitful, is vulnerable to over use. So I want to approach today’s gospel from a different tack.
Rethinking the exegesis of the text
Psychosynthesis, is a psychological and philosophical school belonging within the tradition called Transpersonal Psychology. In Transpersonal Psychology the ultimate goal of psychological development is the spiritual integration of the psyche and the soul within a three-fold unity of body, mind, and spirit. Roberto Assagioli, the founder of Psychosynthesis was an early disciple of the great Sigmund Freud. However he parted company with Freud over Freud’s discounting of the spiritual component in human development. In viewing psycho-emotional and spiritual development proceeding in tandem, Assagioli coined the term bi-focal vision.
My psychosynthetic training proves invaluable in my ministry as a priest. In my pastoral relationships I employ Assagioli’s concept of bi-focal vision to keep my eye on both the emotional and spiritual aspects within another person’s reporting of their experience. It occurs to me that the concept of bi-focal vision offers us another way of exploring the complexity in John’s Signs of the Kingdom stories.
Bi-focal vision tracks two distinct elements that are nevertheless interconnected and intertwined. Applied to John’s Gospel, the use of bi-focal vision allows us to identify distinct, yet interwoven transpersonal and personal themes, out of which John weaves his theology of Jesus.
In the story of the raising of Lazarus the synopsis is: Jesus, with his disciples received a message from the sisters of Lazarus that their brother is ill and dying. Jesus greets the news with what appears to be detached disregard, saying Lazarus is not going to die, rather that what is happening to him is an opportunity to glorify God. He then delays setting off for Lazarus, Martha, and Mary’s home in Bethany by two whole days. In the meantime Lazarus does die and is interred in his tomb. After two days Jesus nonchalantly declares that now Lazarus has died it’s time to visit his friends in Bethany, which is not far form Jerusalem. This fills his disciples with dismay for Judea is now a very dangerous place for Jesus to go. Last time he was there he narrowly escaped being stoned to death. Nevertheless they all set off and as Jesus nears Bethany, first Martha, having heard of his approach rushes out to greet him. Likewise a little later Mary, when she hears of Jesus’ approach also goes out to greet him. Despite his seemingly contradictory delay in coming, Jesus, now in state of some emotional distress, eventually arrives at the tomb and calls Lazarus to awaken and come out, which he does.
When we apply bi-focal vision to this story, we can begin to more distinctly view both the transpersonal, i.e. the dimension beyond the personal, and the personal, i.e. human relationship dimension. Both dimensions are integral elements in the stories and by which John articulates his theology of Jesus.
Seeing the text through a bi-focal vision
I want to take and contrast the two encounters Jesus has, first with Martha, and then her sister, Mary. Incidentally, we know both these women independently of John’s account. Both Martha and Mary appear in Luke 10:38-42, from which we learn that Martha is the active, doer, always on-the-go, while Mary is the contemplative one. While John does not mention any of that it’s interesting that Martha is the first to go out and meet Jesus, while Mary takes some time to learn of Jesus’ approach.
I find it fascinating to note that both sisters greet Jesus with identical words: Lord, if you had been here my brother Lazarus would not have died. It is interesting to observe how Jesus’ encounter with each sister could not be more different. In his response to Martha we see Jesus in transpersonal focus. His response to Martha’s words of mild rebuke, is to evoke from her a profession of faith in the resurrection. He then identifies the resurrection with himself, leading Martha to proclaim: Yes Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one who is coming into the world. Here is John’s transpersonal theology being proclaimed.
In the transpersonal space, Jesus understands the death of Lazarus as an opportunity not for sorrow, but one through which God will reveal his true identity in order to provoke an individual recognition and consequent leap of faith. In this space there is no need to hurry because the result is already ordained. In his encounter with Martha there is no hint of the human emotions inherent to this very stressful situation. The human dimension, with its intense emotionality of relationship remains invisible to our gaze. Through the bi-focal lens we view the event only at the level of its transpersonal significance.
By contrast, Jesus response to Mary using the same words as her sister, reveals to us his identification at the human level with the love and grief he feels for this family. In response to Mary’s weeping, Jesus is overcome by the disturbances of human emotion. John reports Jesus as being greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. The result is that Jesus too, begins to weep with Mary. He then goes weeping to her brother’s tomb. Through the bi-focal lens our gaze now falls upon the human dimension of empathic feeling flowing from ties of love and affection. Nowhere else, does Jesus appear more vulnerable and human, than in his response to Mary and his experience at the tomb of his dead friend.
At the tomb we see the coming together of the intertwined nature of the transpersonal and personal dimensions in John’s story. While still weeping, Jesus now invokes his special transpersonal connection with God: so that they [the onlookers] may believe that you sent me!
For John, the raising of Lazarus is the turning point at which there is no return from the path of the cross. We learn if we could read-on in our text that some of the onlookers reject the transpersonal message of salvation and go off to conspire with the Temple authorities, who now vow to put Jesus to death as apolitical expediency for the sake of the whole nation.
Looking forward from the text
The Fifth Sunday in Lent is traditionally known as Passion Sunday and marks the beginning of Passiontide. From here, the following week leads us to Palm Sunday and the commencement of Holy Week. During Passiontide we get to sing some of the best hymns of the whole Christian Year.
The Anglican Tradition in our Episcopal Church bequeaths to us that great liturgical tradition of ancient, catholic and apostolic Christianity. We are liturgical Christians and at no other time of the Christian year is this fact more important than over the next 14 days. For liturgy is a vehicle and the purpose of a vehicle is to transport us from one place to another.
Liturgy too, has to be viewed through a bi-focal lens. Viewed in this way we see liturgy as a vehicle transporting us from one location in physical time and space to another, i.e. Passion Sunday to Easter Day and beyond. We also perceive that the liturgy transports us from one psychospiritual space to another, i.e. from pre-resurrection to post-resurrection in transpersonal time.
I encourage all to participate by climbing on-board the liturgical vehicle that is about to embark on the final phase of the journey that conveys us to the true joy of resurrection in post-resurrection time. Beginning on Palm Sunday, and continuing over the days of the week that follow, please join us in the multiple opportunities provided by our Holy Week liturgical calendar.
By attending the liturgies of Holy Week, and the Triduum – the Great Three Days of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, the Easter Saturday, and Easter Day, we have the opportunity to become active participants (not merely passive bystanders) in the unfolding liturgical drama of the cross and resurrection. When viewed bi-focally, these are events of huge transpersonal significance, yet equally events that move us at the deepest levels of our human emotional need.
Liturgy is about the transpersonal transformation of the Christian Community. It is also through liturgy that we connect with the human dimension where we identify with Jesus’ experience as he tramps his weary way to the cross. Through the liturgies of Holy Week and the Great Three Days of Easter, we travel with Jesus the way of the cross so that we too, may arrive with him at the joyful Day of his Resurrection. There is no magical transportation to Easter Day that skips the way of the cross. As the Friday Collect in the Book of Common Prayer phrases it:
Almighty God, whose most dear Son went not up to joy before he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified: Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it no other than the way of life and peace; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord.