Apr 1, 2017

5th Sunday in Lent: "Even now, whatever you ask!"

(Rembrandt van Rijn)

"Lazarus, come out!"

Ezekiel 37:12-14
Romans 8:8-11
John 11:1-45

I distinctly remember about a month or so after my ordination, I received a letter from my Bishop which reminded me to write my will and be sure to turn it in to the Diocesan Office.  I also remember being very shocked that in the infancy of my priesthood I would now be reminded about the end of it.  I thought, “I was just ordained!  I’m only 27 years old, in very good health, ready and eager to serve the Church so rather than being welcomed why am I now being asked to think about my death? How long do you want me around?”

The other new priest ordained with me pretty much felt the same way. Although, we sort of laughed about it we dutifully did arrange to have our wills written up, such that they were. However, I’m still not certain that very early reminder was the best way to welcome a new priest to the Diocese.

At any rate, truth be told, none of us like to be reminded that our lives will someday literally come to an end. And yes, it is a good idea to periodically update your will. It can be a sobering and necessarily humbling moment. Yet, our Christian perspective on death is not one of despair but of hope.

Fast forward, I have now been around long enough to have celebrated numerous funeral services for both young and old and all ages in-between.  The funeral of a young person is particularly hard both for the family and all present.  We are sad about what seems a young life cut short, we are grateful when an elderly loved one passes after a long and full life yet share the sadness they will no longer be around.  Our Catholic funeral liturgy is a beautiful testimony to our faith in the resurrection of Jesus and that of our own. The funeral liturgy is truly a Mass of Christian hope; hope for all that Jesus promises as we hear our Lord say in the dramatic Gospel story this weekend: “I am the resurrection and the life.”

Of all the miracle stories in the Gospels I think the raising of Lazarus is certainly among the most emotional and vivid.  We cannot help but feel the grief of Jesus who wept at hearing of the death of his friend Lazarus. The pleading of Martha to Jesus to come to Bethany, Jesus deliberate delay in going, and his meeting with Martha who states: “Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died,” is heart wrenching.  Then, the most dramatic moment, intensely portrayed in a number of movies on the life of Christ, when Jesus demands the stone before Lazarus tomb be rolled away; he then shouts, “Lazarus, come out!” and the formally dead man walks out of the tomb. The burial cloths which bind his body are removed and Lazarus is alive again.  If that doesn’t move you, check your pulse. 

So, we can certainly find ourselves caught in the scene and no doubt this miracle was the final straw that broke the camels back as it were for Jesus.  Not much later, he enters Jerusalem to the wave of palm branches, adoring crowds and the authorities had enough – they plot his demise.  Yet, this story is not about this event as much as it remains another story of faith.  A moment of encounter with Jesus whose very presence and invitation to Martha is the same for us: “I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”

Do you believe that even in the face of what seems so final, death itself, God remains a source for life, hope, transformation, and Christian joy? The story of the raising of Lazarus is one of the “signs” that John relates for us.  Water into wine was the first of Jesus’ “signs.”  That is, that in this miracle we look beyond what was done to the person who did it and as a result place our faith in him.  Jesus is the ‘sign” of the Father’s presence among us; he is the Word of God who becomes a sign of the Father’s love for humanity – and we are called to faith in him; to transformation – new life in Christ. 

Another word we use for “sign” is sacrament or mysteries. For John his Gospel was sacramental in nature.  The miracles of Jesus were identified as mysterious events, which made Jesus a very mysterious man. Yet all of them brought the same result – the experience of an encounter with the living Christ and a change to a new life and a call to faith in Christ. The Samaritan woman discovered the Messiah and his endless “living water.” The man born blind found the new sight of faith in the One who is “light of the world.” And today, we are called to recognize that not even death itself can stop the power of God to bring us eternal life and hope in this world. These are reminders, “signs” of baptism (water at the well and the pool of Siloam where the blind man washed) and the seed of faith planted in us due to the washing away of our sinful blindness, darkness and even spiritual death. The story of Lazarus has no symbol of water yet it is the power of Jesus’ word and our faith in him that brings about a transformation – new life. "Lazarus, come out!" and he comes out alive.  

As Bishop Robert Barron noted these readings remind us of our own personal sin, our need to quench our spiritual thirst for God, to heal the moral and spiritual blindness caused by sin, and to bring us back from the many “tombs” we bury ourselves in as a result of turning away from the life God offers us. 

I have always been moved in the Lazarus story that even in the face of death and in her disappointment that Jesus did not come to Bethany when first told of Lazarus terminal condition, even with all that Martha still knew that Jesus could do something: “Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died.  But even now I know that whatever you ask of God, God will give you.” In the presence of what seems so final and absolute, you can still do something.  What great faith!  

It is not unlike Mary saying to the waiters at Cana, “Do whatever he tells you.”  Or Jesus coming upon the funeral procession in Nain (Lk 7: 11-17) and a grieving mother whose son had died when he said to the dead son, “I say to you get up.” Gathered at supper with his Apostles that last fateful night, he says: "Take and eat. This is my Body . . . this is my Blood shed for you." And because he says it, it is. "Lazarus, come out!" And he walks out alive.   

While the raising of Lazarus remains a profound moment in Jesus’ public ministry, it remains for us a call to place our faith in the One whose word is truth.  As Bishop Barron also says in reference to Jesus: “Because he is who he says he is, what Jesus says is.” I am the resurrection and the life – and we can be absolutely confident that our faith in him lifts us up, takes away fear and provides hope even in the faith of temptation and darkness.  When we turn to Christ Jesus we find not just a wise teacher but a Savior who calls us to life and does for us what we could never do for ourselves.  The sacramental signs of our Church are a living reminder to us that Christ continues to call us to faith.  In the upcoming Easter season we see this particularly in Baptism, Confirmation, and the Holy Eucharist.  

Let us not forget, the celebration of our Eucharist, then, is that prime sign of his risen presence with us.  His Body and Blood call us to unity and provide the confidence to keep on going as an essentially optimistic people who are not overcome by fear, isolation, materialism, or false hopes this world may provide. 

We confidently know that despite what might seem the end is really the beginning: “Even now, you can still do something.” 

As true man he wept for Lazarus his friend
and as eternal God raised him from the tomb,
just as, taking pity on the human race, 
he leads us by sacred mysteries to new life. 

(From the Preface for 5th Sunday)