My grandmother had a beautiful tea cup that was reserved for special occasions.It was a pale mint green tea cup, with four little gold feet, with a gold rim, an ornate handle, with little pink roses on the inside of the cup. One day she said to me “When you close your eyes, what things do you see when you think of me?” I found the question strange, but answered her. But the tea cup was not mentioned.
I had moved away from my home town and for the first time my close knit family was faced with a long distance apart. Christmas was coming. Despite my invitations, my grandmother decided to spend Christmas at home, alone, instead.
My mother came for Christmas. Christmas Eve day came and my mother and father were all upstairs having a nap before church. I, missing my grandmother, snuck into the kitchen and called her. It was a simple conversation. But it felt so interesting to have this conversation in whispers so as not to wake anyone. It was like it was our little time of stillness together when the whole world seemed to be rushing around for Christmas.
Christmas Eve came and went. The tree was beautiful, the decorations seemed to sing a glorious song and the night was magical. We were all tucked into our beds so warmly, smiling in our sleep until the phone rang. It was the hospital. My grandmother had been taken in with chest pains. We would be on the next flight out.
Lights began to flick on, suitcases were being hurriedly packed, and we were calling the airlines as we hurried with our packing. Suddenly, the Christmas tree looked like a normal tree snatched out of the middle of the woods, laden with ridiculous burgundy and gold dressings that seemed unnatural to a tree. The unopened gifts and stockings lay there, now exposing their cheap yarns and matted red velour having lost all their sparkle and magic in just a few moments. Somehow, the world changed and yet, it was the same. And soon our plane was landing. As we were waiting for our luggage, our names were paged over the loudspeakers. The seat of our souls grew dim. A concierge found us. My grandmother had died before we even boarded the plane.
The next few days were a blur. We knew it was my grandmother’s choice to stay home, and we wanted to honour her decision, but the self imposed guilt that on Christmas day, my grandmother died in a hospital, alone, with all of her family 1600kms away, could be felt but no one dared utter words to express it.
If only we had been there. IF ONLY we had found another way to have Christmas together. The ‘if only’ list began to grow and grow, each possibility more depressing than the next. And I remembered that conversation with my grandmother and I told no one what I had done. I wanted to keep that secret to myself, to hoard the memory that nothing, not even guilt could take from me.
When we arrived at my grandmother’s house the tree was still plugged in, the tea in the pot, now cold on the stove, sat waiting for us, the electric Santa waiving his mechanical wave to no one. The apartment had a warm glow, but there was no warmth to be felt.
Later, I found a box with my name on it. In it, were the things I had mentioned reminded me of my grandmother. But there on the shelf was the green tea cup, with no one’s name on it. I wanted that tea cup so badly, not because it reminded me of her, but because it was beautiful. I wanted that cup for my own possession, not for the memories. Greed, guilt and anger set in my heart which began to become hardened. Soon, my mother and I were having a heated discussion fueled by our guilt and anger about who should have it. In a moment we both had a hold of it and in a moment of thinking that the other had grasp of it, the tea cup was smashed on the floor, in small pieces, each piece with a tiny rose that would never bloom.
There was a man named Lazarus, brother of Mary and Martha, who was very ill and lay sick in his bed. The sisters knew Jesus and sent word to him saying ,“The one you love is sick.” Jesus heard this news and said, “This sickness will not end in death, for it is God’s glory that the Son of Man will be glorified through it.” Jesus loved Martha, Mary and Lazarus very much. But when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed two more days where he was. Then he said to his disciples “let us go back to Bethany in Judea for our friend Lazarus has died and for your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. Let us go to him.”
When Jesus arrived, he found out that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. There were many mourners gathered to comfort Mary and Martha. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming she ran out to meet him, but Mary stayed at home.
When Martha saw Jesus she said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But I know that God will give whatever you ask.”
Jesus said to her “your brother will rise again.” Martha said “Yes, Lord, he will rise again on the last day, the day of resurrection.” But Jesus said “ I am the resurrection and the life. Who believes in me will live. Do you believe this?” Martha said “Yes Lord, I believe you are the Christ.”
Martha ran back home and Jesus stayed where Martha had met him. Martha spoke to Mary privately and said “The teacher is here and is asking for you.” When Mary heard this, she got up quickly and went to meet him, because Jesus had not yet arrived at the house. When she saw him she said, she fell at his feet and said, “Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died.”
When Jesus heard her words and saw her crying, and those who came with her crying, he was moved in spirit and was troubled. He asked “Where have you laid him?” And they said “Come and see.”
Then the people said, “See how he loved him. Yet, he who opened the eyes of the blind, could he not have kept this man from dying?”
At that moment of the cup breaking, our eyes were opened, much like the eyes of the disciples on the road to Damascus who did not recognize the resurrected Jesus until the bread had been broken. Unceremoniously, the tea cup landed in the trash and we were confronted by the very thing we had tried to avoid: The ‘if onlys, the I should haves, the I could haves.’ Suddenly, things came into focus: the piercing glitter of the Christmas tree, the mocking joy of the star lit in the window. Christmas had come and gone for the rest of the world but not for us. There was no meal, no feast, no exchange of symbols of love for the birth of the Christ child. At the birth of a child, there was the death of one of God’s faithful servants. At the joy of the journey to Bethlehem was a funeral procession. The reading of the Scripture was about being lifted up on eagle’s wings, not the wings of angels at the manger. The hymns we sang were about Beulah Land not Bethlehem. The poems were of God’s mansion with many rooms, not about crowded inns. Silent Night took on a whole new meaning. Jesus seemed so far away, either in a manger, on a cross or out of the tomb.
The ‘if onlys’ continued for many months to come until finally they were laid to rest only to visit like the Ghost of Christmas Past. And there are many if onlys in the Gospel story this evening. If only, Jesus had been there, Lazarus would not have died. If only.
At this time of year, Jesus can seem so far away. When the world is being merry and bright, we are taken back to the losses, the regrets, the guilt, the anger, the hurt of the situations and persons that we have lost, or we have removed ourselves from. this is the place where we can come in times of joys and sorrows, even if we are mad with God. Here, as we gather this evening, we gather on behalf of others who are experiencing soul pain. And others of us gather to be reminded we are united in our common experience of being made in God’s image and broken in our humanity.
At Christmas we celebrate the incarnation, the love of God poured into the person of Jesus, who ate among the marginalised, slept where his head rested, dreamt of peace and justice, was thirsty in the heat of the sun, and, was betrayed by his closest of friends. These are all things we have experienced ourselves. We hear the story of Jesus who appears to have let down Mary and Martha in a time of sorrow at the death of their brother. When we hear this story from a perspective of sorrow, Jesus seems to be someone who does what he wants when he wants it, no matter how urgent the issue is. From a perspective of the Longest Night when the light is the most dim, the Light of Jesus seems so far away as a tiny flicker on a dying candle. From our places of hurt, Jesus appears to be waiting for an opportunity so that “God’s glory in the Son of Man will be glorified” all while taking a few extra days to make that all happen. Jesus may seem far away, but he does, eventually come.
The line from Love Divine all Loves Excelling says, “Jesus thow art all compassion, pure unbounded love thou art.” How compassionate does Jesus seem when he lets Lazarus die just to raise him up from the dead? He arrives after Lazarus had already been buried. Martha and Mary both say ‘if only. If only you had been here’. When Mary fell at Jesus feet, he was moved in spirit and troubled. Shortly after the passage says “Jesus wept”. Wept at what? The death of Lazarus? Mary falling at his feet crying? We will never know for we cannot know the mind of Jesus. But we can know the heart of Jesus: that Jesus compassion for Mary is true for us in our troubled souls when we cry out to Jesus and say “If only you had been here, Jesus, this wouldn’t have happened.” Jesus does come to us, but at times when we least expect it. During our lives, God can seem so distant as we pick up the pieces of the broken tea cup, each with it’s own question of ‘why did this happen? How did this happen? When, Lord, when?’ And sometimes we never get the answer. The question then becomes how will we live without knowing the answer?
In the tea cup’s breaking the truth was revealed. In Lazarus’ broken body the truth about Jesus was revealed. It just took some time to see it. Like the cracks of the tea cup, the cracks of pottery of the image once held, if glued back together, would be a shattered image of what once stood. Leonard Cohen says it best, |There is a crack in everything. That’s how the Light gets in|
Like the broken tea cup, like Lazarus body, like Jesus broken body, the Light comes in through the cracks. Tiny little slivers of Light, even on the darkest, longest night. Jesus Christ is the Light of the world, and no darkness, not even our own darkness, can overcome it. Through piecing together our own lives, one broken piece of porcelain at a time, the Light will come through, sliver of light by sliver of light. This is the place where our tea cups that are in the process of being glued back together, broken piece by broken piece, will look like the image it once held. This is the place where Jesus waits for the broken tea cups of life to be pieced back together so that the light can get in through the cracks. Here on this evening, in our undoing is our piecing back together, offering our broken vessels of our souls to Jesus, as cracked as they may be. We maybe here for our own acknowledgement of the broken tea cups of our lives, or we maybe here because we recognize the world’s brokenness and our eagerness to change the world in which we live.
The carols will be sung. The trees will be lit. The stars will shine. The darkness will come. Let it come and trust the Light. The Light maybe dim, but no darkness can over come it. May the broken tea cups of life not be discarded, but may they be put back together, piece by piece with God’s help. It won’t be the same was it once was, that is certain. But it will be a vessel so the light can get in through the cracks, as dim as it may be.
And so it is with God.