From death into life: Sunday reflection

This morning’s Gospel reading is John 11:1–45:

Now a man was ill, Lazarus from Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. Mary was the one who had anointed the Lord with perfumed oil and dried his feet with her hair; it was her brother Lazarus who was ill. So the sisters sent word to Jesus saying, “Master, the one you love is ill.” When Jesus heard this he said, “This illness is not to end in death, but is for the glory of God, that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So when he heard that he was ill, he remained for two days in the place where he was. Then after this he said to his disciples, “Let us go back to Judea.” The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just trying to stone you, and you want to go back there?” Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours in a day? If one walks during the day, he does not stumble, because he sees the light of this world. But if one walks at night, he stumbles, because the light is not in him.” He said this, and then told them, “Our friend Lazarus is asleep, but I am going to awaken him.” So the disciples said to him, “Master, if he is asleep, he will be saved.” But Jesus was talking about his death, while they thought that he meant ordinary sleep. So then Jesus said to them clearly, “Lazarus has died. And I am glad for you that I was not there, that you may believe. Let us go to him.” So Thomas, called Didymus, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go to die with him.”

When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, only about two miles away. And many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to comfort them about their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went to meet him; but Mary sat at home. Martha said to Jesus, “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.” Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise.” Martha said to him, “I know he will rise, in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus told her, “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?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord. I have come to believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, the one who is coming into the world.”

When she had said this, she went and called her sister Mary secretly, saying, “The teacher is here and is asking for you.” As soon as she heard this, she rose quickly and went to him. For Jesus had not yet come into the village, but was still where Martha had met him. So when the Jews who were with her in the house comforting her saw Mary get up quickly and go out, they followed her, presuming that she was going to the tomb to weep there. When Mary came to where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” When Jesus saw her weeping and the Jews who had come with her weeping, he became perturbed and deeply troubled, and said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Sir, come and see.” And Jesus wept. So the Jews said, “See how he loved him.” But some of them said, “Could not the one who opened the eyes of the blind man have done something so that this man would not have died?”

So Jesus, perturbed again, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone lay across it. Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the dead man’s sister, said to him, “Lord, by now there will be a stench; he has been dead for four days.” Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believe you will see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone. And Jesus raised his eyes and said, “Father, I thank you for hearing me. I know that you always hear me; but because of the crowd here I have said this, that they may believe that you sent me.” And when he had said this, he cried out in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, tied hand and foot with burial bands, and his face was wrapped in a cloth. So Jesus said to them, “Untie him and let him go.”

Now many of the Jews who had come to Mary and seen what he had done began to believe in him.

We are having quite the Lenten season this year, are we not? Our pastor remarked that he had some trouble deciding what to give up for Lent this year; instead, we have been forced to give up everything, or so it seems. The churches have shut down and likely won’t reopen here until after Easter. Even if they do, the likelihood will be that few people will want to congregate in large numbers for Mass or any other reason, at least for several weeks.

In that sense, faithful Christians can understandably feel as though they have given up everything for Lent this year. Catholics especially feel the loss of access to the Eucharist, which online Masses doesn’t quite cover. And it is not just the loss of that access that we feel, either, but the loss of communion with our ecclesial communities — our friends and neighbors of the parish. The loss of their physical presence can be assuaged in part through social media and conference technology, but Facebook and Zoom can only take us so far.

It is as though we have all crawled into a spiritual and communal crypt. Not only do we not know when we can hope to emerge, we cannot even know when we might want to emerge. Our present situation feels like a kind of suspended animation in all aspects, a darkness where light might frighten us just as much as darkness.

This, perhaps, might be the most appropriate situation for the Gospel reading about Lazarus. We hear this passage every Lenten season, but this year it can teach us much more about our spiritual place in the world. We have become a parable in ourselves, as we await a reawakening in the world as well as in our spiritual lives.

The Lord promised this reawakening from the beginning. His call to humanity for reunion speaks throughout salvation history, but Ezekiel puts it in specific terms in our first reading today. “O my people,” the Lord says through Ezekiel, “I will open your graves and have you rise from them, and bring you back to the land of Israel.”

Ezekiel wrote this during the second wave of exile to Babylon from Jerusalem, when the Judeans lost the Solomonic temple and their definition of community, a period which would last almost a century. Their darkness was far more intense than our present darkness, of course, but even in their despair, the Lord kept calling them back to Him. He expressly promised a resurrection in both literal and figurative terms if the Israelites would only open their hearts to Him. Ezekiel’s prophecy reminded them, and reminds us, that this life is not the end but the beginning, and that our worldly concerns should not eclipse our spiritual connection to God.

When Jesus hears that Lazarus is sick, today’s Gospel shows Him deliberately hesitating before going back to Bethany. He wanted to demonstrate the power of His mercy and the purpose of His mission — to destroy death and provide a vision of our ultimate journey. Jesus would use His own crucifixion as the ultimate victory over death, but Lazarus’ demise sets the stage for that sacrifice of the Passion. Lazarus had been in the tomb long enough for others to warn Jesus that the stench of his decay would be horrible, but they did not know what He had in mind. All they saw was death and darkness, and the seemingly insurmountable distance now put between themselves and Lazarus.

What do the neighbors say in this Gospel about Jesus’ appearance? They rebuke Him for allowing the distance in the first place. “Could not the one who opened the eyes of the blind man have done something so that this man would not have died?” We react in similar ways to death and mortal crises such as this present pandemic. Why does God allow this to happen? It is one of the most enduring questions and contradictions of our spiritual lives, and in our present moment perhaps one of the most pressing. We pray for His intervention in times like these, hoping to draw closer to Him, or perhaps more accurately, hoping to draw Him more closer to us.

It is these times, however, that remind us that the Lord is calling us from our tombs every day. He wants us to embrace eternal life in Him, not material life where everything ends in death and destruction. His plan is to have us join Him of our own free will, answering the call to leave our crypts and become His sons and daughters in the true Promised Land of His loving presence.

We have it in our power to go from death into life by aligning our hearts and wills to the Lord’s through the Holy Spirit, Paul writes in his letter to the Romans. In order to answer that call, we must consider ourselves dead to this world and live with Christ instead:

But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the spirit is alive because of righteousness. If the Spirit of the one who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, the One who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also, through his Spirit dwelling in you.

This is how we all become Lazarus, however imperfectly we try. This period inside the crypt of “social distancing” will soon pass, and the pandemic will abate through the gifts of science and reason in the form of treatments and vaccines. The longer we remain in our spiritual crypts, however, unwilling to embrace the Lord and our brothers and sisters, the more we will grow accustomed to the darkness and fear the Light. This Lenten season is the perfect time to answer Christ’s call to come forth. We truly have nothing to lose in a fallen world where decay and death are inexorable and inevitable, and everything to gain.

The front-page image is a detail from “The Raising of Lazarus” by Jean Jouvenet, 1706. Currently on display in the Louvre Museum. Via Wikimedia Commons

“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here.  For previous Green Room entries, click here.

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