“Cloud of witnesses”

Jesus told Martha: “I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”
John 11:25-26

As I watched Nelson Mandela’s presidential inauguration in May 1994, I was moved to sadness at the thought of how many great and good men and women who had striven for this one event were not there. The previous year we had lost Helen Joseph, Oliver Tambo and Chris Hani to name but three. And in the decades of Struggle up to that day so many other good people who had contributed to this moment had died: Albert Luthuli and Alan Paton; Robert Sobukwe, Bram and Molly Fischer; Moses Kotane and Yusuf Dadoo, Steve Biko and Rick Turner; the names rolled on…

I am not even going to try to unpick the complexity of this Sunday’s Gospel, the raising of Lazarus. What I shall to do is try to make sense, in the light of 1994, of two meanings of ‘resurrection’.

For those who hold that death is truly the end, a death that can be avoided is often a tragedy. Mary and the mourners see this: Jesus arrived too late. Jesus’ decision to raise Lazarus comes out of his own sense of being too late. Like the first century equivalent of an emergency room surgeon, he uses his power to revive Lazarus. It is impressive and, no doubt, stuck in the minds of those who later heard rumours of Jesus’ own resurrection in the days and weeks and years that followed his death.  It was a powerful sign responding to human tragedy, though pointing beyond it.

Far more impressive to me is the resurrection embraced in faith by Martha. She accepts the reality of her brother’s death but in no way blames Jesus for being late. Her belief is that those who, like Lazarus, have great faith, live on in God. As such they are already resurrected, though no longer with us in the flesh. There is no need for reanimation. They are with us though we do not see them. In short they are the ‘cloud of witnesses’.

Back on that day in 1994, it suddenly dawns on me: they are there. They are standing amidst the thousands gathered at the Union Buildings. They are standing with Nelson Mandela as he speaks to us. They are nodding vigorously in assent as Mandela says “Never again!” and cheer with us as the aircraft fly past bearing our new flag.

And they are still with us twenty years on. They nod vigorously and silently applaud when we do the right thing – and cringe when another politician is caught out for corruption, or when self-interest and expedience trumps the common good. We owe it to them, as much as to ourselves and to future generations, to make this democracy of ours work.   That too is a powerful sign of resurrection hope.

Fr Anthony Egan SJ

Fr Anthony Egan SJ (born Cape Town 1966; entered the Jesuits 1990; ordained 2002) has taught, full-time or part-time, at St Augustine College of South Africa, St John Vianney Seminary, Fordham University (on sabbatical) and the University of the Witwatersrand. The author/co-author of a number of books, book chapters, academic and popular articles, he is a correspondent for America magazine, a contributor to Worldwide and writes for spotlight.africa. He is also a commentator on local and international radio and television. He is an Honorary Fellow of the Helen Suzman Foundation. Extramural interests include Science Fiction, Theatre, Art and creative writing, including poetry.

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