Reviewed by Eileen Quinn Knight, Ph.D.
The last book I read, Learning to Pray Learning to Pray, by James Martin. S.J. helped me to realize the joy in the insistence of the Holy Spirit on transforming a soul. It again happened in Come Forth. The author is an excellent writer but even more he keeps the needs of the reader close to his mind and heart. He provides detail to situations that are often presented in one way but Martin takes the information and delves into the depth and breadth that makes a more complete and meaningful story for the contemplation of the reader. Martin states: “Whatever the reasons, within you is a longing to know more about Lazarus’s story. I invite you to see in that not simple curiosity but a way that God is at work in you.”
In typical endearing Jesuit form for a book, Martin states: “My aim is to combine analysis of the biblical text, biblical insights drawn from each passage, faith about the historical setting of the story, and appearances of Lazarus in the larger culture with reflections on experiences from my own life to help (the reader) encounter God there.” Each year on the trip to the Holy Land, the pilgrims are asked what they would like to “leave behind” in the tomb: what grudge, resentment or difficult memory would they like to “let go” there? At the end of the chapter Martin gives us questions for reflection such as “As you begin this book, can you ask God for the grace to be open to whatever God wants to reveal to you about your own life?”
One of the issues that Martin clarifies on in Chapter 2 is about what happened after Jesus time on earth, the oral stories from AD 30 to AD 65. The apostles had no reason to be impelled to write the stories down because many of the eyewitnesses were still alive and could tell the tale themselves and many of the early Christians could tell the tale themselves and many thought that Jesus was returning soon. He also lets the reader know that each evangelist wrote in Greek, the lingua franca of the day. That’s one reason why sometimes Martin turns to the Greek in this book to try to understand the original meaning of what they wrote so much better. In the section on reflection Martin asks: “Do you believe that Jesus could raise people from the dead? Why or why not?
Chapter after chapter, Martin relates issues we possibly never thought about. The issue of friendship in chapter 3 is eye opening as we learn that the apostles besides proclaiming the word, Jesus needed people to rely on. During private times, he and his disciples would have relaxed in one another’s company, and told stories and laughed. “Yes Jesus laughed. He was human after all.” (Martin gives us a footnote to check the statement out!) He could have chosen just one, like Peter, to be his assistant but he didn’t, he chose a group of people who among them were the twelve. Martin gives us the example of his own friendship through his surgeries. His Jesuit community and their willingness and desire to meet his every need was evident in his companionship and recovery as well as other times and situations. In the reflection section, Martin asks: “In Henri Nouwen’s words, you are “God beloved.” As you look back over your life what enables you to believe this?”
The art throughout the book are black and white sketches. They are very important to the story and let us stop and reflect on this art. In chapter 4, Martin assists us in knowing and loving Martha and Mary not as perfect human beings but presents us the story of their lives. We see pictures that help us to know who these women were. Martin helps us to see that these women were contemplatives in action. Think of Martha saying: “Don’t you care?” “The feeling that we are doing this alone, with no help, exacerbates our stress. No one likes to face their problems alone. Maybe Martha felt quite alone as she saw her sister sitting by Jesus’s feet. Martin offers some Ignatian spirituality when he states: “God’s spirit calms, uplifts and encourages us. St. Ignatius points this out in his Spiritual Exercises, saying that it is “characteristic” of the good spirit to “stir up” courage and strength, inspiration and tranquility. Martin weaves the issues of Martha and Mary into the understanding of God’s presence and that God is with us! The art on p.98 by William Hart focuses on the reality of the sketch and the natural beauty of Martha. In the reflection. Martin states: “In John’s Gospel it is clearly Mary of Bethany who anoints Jesus’s feet. In other Gospels her identity is less clear. What does her action and her being unnamed in other Gospels say to you about the role of women in the Gospels? Or about how the Gospels were written?”
Many readers will be glad to see the grid of Fr. Dan Harrington as he is referred to often in the Friday afternoon conversation on the Sunday’s Gospel with Father Martin. Harrington tells us the Gospel writers (Mark, Matthew, Luke) and how they understood Jesus, his disciples and the Christian life. Sandra Schneiders’s summary of John’s Gospel is that Jesus is the son of God who reveals the Father that the disciples are people who misunderstand and that Christian life is a belief in Jesus. Martin states: “His (John’s) language is not only poetic but also highly mystical, notably different from much of the language of the Synoptics. Moving forward in this book, Martin deals with the Jewishness of John’s Gospel, he encourages the reader to read Nostra Aetate, “that other religions, respond to longings of the human heart “each in its own manner, by proposing ‘ways’ comprising teachings, rules of life, and sacred rites.” Martin continues: “And in a statement that would have shocked the participants of previous councils, including the First Vatican Council, Nostra Aetate declared, “The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions.” That marked a sea change in church teaching.”
Martin offers us the glimpse to what Mary does after her brother is raised from the dead (in Jn.11): she anoints Jesus’s body (in Jn.12). The Passion of Jesus was set in motion by the raising of Lazarus. Mary’s anointing of Jesus’s feet is a preparation for his death. One of Martin’s scholars believes that the anointing is an act of faith. “Mary is the first to accept that the illness and death of Lazarus will lead to the glorification of Mary’s anointing indicates that, at last, one of the characters in the story “got it right”. In the reflection section Martin asks: “The responses of Martha and Mary to Jesus’s appearance in Bethany are contrasted in this chapter. Which sister do you feel “got it right”? Or is that question too judgmental for you? Are we meant to see them struggling to understand in their own way?”
This book is one you should buy right now (and one for a friend). Martin’s reference to other authors deepens and completes many of the thoughts we have about Martha, Mary, Lazarus and Scripture. His annotated bibliography provides us with the ability to find the authors he refers to. Come Forth is filled with rich information, catechesis, wisdom and reflections that are paramount to our transformation and growth as people of God.