In March, before COVID became a full-blown pandemic, I ordered four icons from an Orthodox icon shop I’ve used in the past. They were able to ship two of the icons before needing to close their shop due to state restrictions and for the health of their employees. The other two would be shipped at a later date, as they were able to re-open and continue production of the icons.
When I got an email a few weeks ago, it said the icons were shipping and would arrive the middle of the next week. The situation was humorous since I had been home for weeks on end and during the one week of the summer I was away, the long-awaited icons were delivered to my doorstep, where they waited for my arrival a few days later. Of course, I exclaimed, to anyone who would listen to me, of course the icons arrive when I cannot be there to get the package.
A couple of days later, I learned of the death of a dear friend of the family. There are dozens of memories of my childhood and young adult life that I can return to and find this man filling the scene with his lively personality. He and his wife were friends of my parents. They were present for important sacraments and were the babysitters for my younger sister and me on occasion. Later, they were my bosses as I worked for them during the late-summer and fall. So many reflections on their frequent presence in my life and the unique role they had in relation to my family. Over the next few days, my family and I reminisced over the eccentricities and humor of our beloved friend.
When I returned home a few days later, I retrieved the package on my doorstep, grateful that it wasn’t damaged by rain or heat. I opened up my package and saw the two delayed icons.
I couldn’t help but think of how perfectly timed these icons were for me.
Two men wrapped in burial clothes, highlighting two profound realities of the Christian life. Death comes for us all and yet death does not have the final word. On one hand we had the rejoicing of Christ conquering death and on the other hand we had the mourning of Christ, fully human yet fully divine, submitting for a moment to death.
These two icons were the perfect icons for the week and I asked my sister which we should display in our home: the one of mourning or the one of joy. Joy, she said. And so we did, yet we also didn’t put away the other one. It seemed fitting that both should be out, each reminding us of the other, how death yields to new life and how Christ deeply knows our sufferings since He chose to experience them, too.
“We do not mourn like the pagans.” The priest proclaimed this truth during the funeral homily. As humans, it is good and natural to mourn and yet we do it in a different way than those who don’t believe in God or who believe there is no Beatific Vision. The way I mourn should be vastly different if I think my friend no longer exists versus my belief that he is now with the God he loved his whole life. So we mourn, but with a joyful look toward eternity, with a realization that the joy of Lazarus being raised from the death is infinitesimal compared to the life in Christ on the other side of the grave.
I keep looking at the Lazarus icon in my living room and seeing how Jesus calls Lazarus from darkness into the light, from death into life, from a sleep to being fully and completely awake. Sometimes, I feel like the woman at His feet who can only weep and grasp His feet. Other times, I feel like the woman who glances back to see her brother miraculously alive. And other times, I feel like Lazarus, blinking in the earthly light I thought I’d never see, wondering what my life holds after tasting death. Still other times, I feel like one of the other people in the icon, questioning if Christ can bring new life to me, too.
Joy and mourning.
Birth and death and rebirth.
The rest of this year seems like it will be filled with a million more moments of joy and mourning, times where we find new life and times where we experience death. Like Lazarus, I want to fix my eyes on Christ during those moments of profound joy. In those moments of death, I want to rest with Christ in those burial clothes, knowing He is simply waiting for the best moment to bring about another resurrection.