This 5th Sunday of Lent is the last of the Scrutiny Sundays before we begin Holy Week next Palm Sunday. It will be the strangest Holy Week any of us have experienced. But just because it is different does not meant we cannot experience the power of what the Lord wants to give us in the Paschal mysteries of Holy Week and Triduum. It simply provides new and different ways of experiencing them.
The past three Sundays, the Scrutiny Sundays arising from the ancient Church and those catechumens preparing for Baptism on Easter night, have real relevance for us too. Jesus promised Living Water to the Samaritan woman; Jesus, the Light of the world, give sight and new insight to the man born blind. The Gospel text this Sunday once again comes from St John and also has a baptismal significance. The raising of Lazarus from the dead points to our rising in faith to a new and eternal life through Baptism. These three Sundays lead us to Water, Light, and Life. They have meaning for all of us as we strive, with the help of God’s grace, to live out in our daily lives our baptismal promises.
This text has real power and reveals to us what a human God we have in Jesus Christ, true God and true man. St John never wastes words or symbols, every word is measured and deliberate. This text is particularly packed with meaning and symbolism to strengthen our faith in the Lord of Life.
St John’s Gospel is organised around ‘the seven signs’ the final ‘sign’ is the self-offering of the Lord as the Lamb of sacrifice upon the Altar of the Cross. The raising of his friend Lazarus is the sixth of the ‘seven signs’. It underlines his emphatic claim to give life (5:25-29; 6:40). It was the raising of Lazarus from the dead that would finally seal the Lord’s fate since it provokes the Jewish authorities to get rid of Him (11:45-53).
The Synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke have similar incidents of raising the dead. Jarius’ daughter is raised in Mark 5:21-43 and the young man of Nain is raised in Luke &:11-17. All are a result of the Lord’s compassion in the face of grief. All show the humanity and the absolute divinity of the Lord who reaches out to the broken hearted and who can say, ‘Grave where is your victory!’ Not surprisingly these Gospel texts and particularly todays text is often used at funerals when we hear the words of Jesus to Lazarus’ sister Martha, words that give us comfort and hope: 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.
The beauty of the Gospel is that we each take something different, according to our needs, from the text and message. I have always loved this incident in the St John’s Gospel because I think of my mother. My mother was a bit like Martha. As a redhead she could be a bit fiery. In fact the text says that BOTH Marth and Mary say the same thing to the Lord, “Lord, if you had been hear my brother would not have died”. They are grief stricken and in their grief they chide Him. It is in a sense the cry of everyone who has lost someone whom they have loved – Why? If you are God, why didn’t you do something! The Good Lord hears their pain and anguish. Perhaps it is because of their grief that we have the shortest sentence in Sacred Scripture, “He wept”. What a human God! He, the almighty God in flesh and blood wept for the pain and suffering of those whom He loved and loves. But it is Martha who, much like my sainted mother, could not let it go.
The Lord says ‘Your brother will rise again’. This of course was a statement of faith, of Jewish faith. It was a doctrine already current in Judaism (Dan 12:2-3 also Maccabees 7:9 N.B. This was one of several books removed from the Bible at the ‘Reformation’ by Luther including the Letter to the Hebrews from the N T. Hebrews was eventually put back in to the Protestant Bibles later). But Martha has a go at the Lord, “Oh I know he will rise again, at the resurrection on the last day”. I imagine her saying ‘Yeah, yeah I know the doctrine. But what good is that to me now! I’m hurting now’. Grief is natural and powerful, it rends the heart and soul, it makes us cry out. The Gospel reminds us that He is there to hear us and to stand by our sides even at the entrance of the tomb. But in the midst of her grief Martha hopes and believes that the Lord can do something –“even now I know that whatever you ask of God He will grant you”.
In this first part of the text, the dialogue between Jesus and the sisters, Jesus says to Martha, “I AM the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me though they die shall live, and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. DO YOU BELIVE THIS?”
Here again we have one the important Ego Eimi statements of St John’s Gospel, a claim to divinity. It is the very name and title of God, the Almighty and eternal. He does not say, “I was” or “I will be” but rather “I AM the resurrection and the life” Here and now, in this present moment I AM. Our God is the Lord of all and eternity is the present moment, eternally the present moment. The past is done with and the future does not exist in reality. Only the present moment truly exists – Jesus is the eternal I AM, the eternally present. Jesus places all hope for resurrection and new life upon Himself. He alone has absolute sovereignty over life and death which was and is the sole prerogative of the Lord God (1 Sam 2:6; Wis 16:13).
The Lord elicits from Martha her gift of faith in His Lordship and presence. “Do YOU believe this Martha? Do you? Because if you do, if you believe that I AM, I can do what the world thinks impossible”. Martha, who with Lazarus and Mary loved the Lord, opened their home to Him and welcomed Him, simply and profoundly says “Yes Lord, I believe that YOU are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world”. We can almost hear the relief, the surrender, the hurt leaving her. She can leave it all to Him because “He knows what He is about” (St. John Henry Newman). It is the most clear and profound act of faith in the whole the St. John’s Gospel up to this point.
We can only imagine the shock, maybe even anger, of those who heard Jesus say those words – “I AM the resurrection and the life”. Martha believed. The truth of Jesus’ proclamation that He IS the resurrection and the life would become even more apparent on Easter morning with His own resurrection, the final victory over evil and death.
It is, with the faith of Martha in His ears and heart, that Jesus goes to the tomb. The text says that Lazarus, one of his close friends, had been in the tomb for four days. This is an important detail. The four days signifies the four stages of Spiritual death – Original Sin, violation of the natural Law, violation of the Law of Moses and the despising of the Gospel.
Verse 38 onwards gives the climax of the event. Jesus stands before the tomb, both physical and metaphorical, and asks for faith and action – ‘take the stone away’.
Then He prays, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I know that you always hear me” but so that everyone else may know that You sent Me – he cries out in a loud voice, says the text. It is echoed in the Book of Revelation when The voice will cry out to all creation.
Jesus cries, “Lazarus, come out!” Jesus calls him by name. This gift of life is for him, not other corpses in the tombs. Lazarus alone is called, to that those present and we now, may believe that Jesus IS the resurrection and the Life. Jesus calls him by his name because God always calls us by name. The name of Lazarus has meaning too. “Lazarus” is from “Lazaros,” which is a Greek form of the Hebrew name Eleazar, meaing “He who God helps”.
Surprisingly, there is no Greek verb in this sentence, no word at all meaning “come” in the ordinary sense. The word translated as “come” is an adverb primarily meaning “hither” or “here.” It means “come” in the same way that in English we call a dog by saying “Here, boy!” But there is no degrading sense, as in English, of treating someone like a dog.
There is a secondary meaning for ‘Come out’ in the Greek regarding time. The phrase could be translated as “Until now beyond time!” this is an interesting and perhaps enlightening statement regarding Christ’s view of the sleep of death at the beginning of the text. The Greek word translated as “Come” is from deuro (deuro), which means “hither”, “here”, “until now”, “hither to,” and [with an imperative] “come on” when applied to time. The Greek word translated as “out” or “Forth” is from exô which means “out of a place”, “outside”, “external things,” and “beyond a time” when applied to time. So, not unusually for St John’s Gospel, there is a bit of a word play going on with the place and time meanings.
Lazarus, “He whom God helps”, still bound by the shroud of death and grave clothes, hobbles out. The Lord commands, “Unbind him, let him go free”. Such powerful and beautiful words which the Lord speaks to us! There is a beautiful connection here with the ancient homily known as The Harrowing of Hell used in the Liturgy of the Hours on Holy Saturday morning. The Lord having gone to the underworld says Adam, the son of earth and symbol of fallen humanity, ‘I did not make you to be held imprisoned in the underworld…Arise let us go forth’.
Through His death and resurrection we have been unbound and set free. St. Augustine applied this text to the Sacraments of Confession and Baptism in which we have been unbound and set free from spiritual death by the love and mercy of our God. Just as burial clothes bound Lazarus so sin binds human beings. Jesus told the people to unbind the burial bindings from Lazarus as he came forth from the tomb. So the Lord, through the Sacraments and His Word, unbinds sinners from the chains of sin from spiritual death. We truly experience new life, a kind of second Baptism through the mercy of the Lord who stands before all the tombs we make for ourselves.
Of course as with Jarius’ daughter and the young man of Nain, Lazarus would die a second time. Death, like birth, is an intrinsic part of mortal life. Just as the child must leave the world of the womb be to begin a new life so we must leave world via the tomb to begin a new life. By a very well documented tradition Lazarus, Martha and Mary escaped to Cyprus where they are buried and so passed to their new and eternal life in Christ. Lazarus, Jarius’ daughter and the young man of Nain were all brought back to life, back to this life, not resurrected as Jesus was. But the Scriptures assure us that just as all die in Adam, so all rise to New Life in Christ.
We, by living as the Lord wants, lives of love, kindness, gentleness, courage and virtue, are offered new life, resurrected, glorified and eternal life. This is the life the Lord has won for us, the life He desires for us, a life of union with Him, unbound and set free. In these difficult, anxious and unique times we have opportunities to exercise love, gentleness, patience, courage and virtue with those around us. We do not have to go out searching for opportunities they are in our homes, families, communities and parish right now.
As we approach Holy Week, let us pray that our own faith may be strengthened, so that we, like Martha and Mary, can place all our hope in Him who IS the resurrection and the life! Let us like Lazarus experience the unbinding of sin and the liberty the Lord desires for us.
Sunday 29 March 2020 –
5th Sunday of Lent
By your help, we beseech you, Lord our God, may we walk eagerly in that same charity with which, out of love for the world, your Son handed himself over to death. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.
First reading: Ezekiel 37:12-14 ·
I shall put my spirit in you, and you will live
The Lord says this: I am now going to open your graves; I mean to raise you from your graves, my people, and lead you back to the soil of Israel. And you will know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves and raise you from your graves, my people. And I shall put my spirit in you, and you will live, and I shall resettle you on your own soil; and you will know that I, the Lord, have said and done this – it is the Lord who speaks.
At the darkest moment of Israel’s history, when they are hopeless exiles in Babylon, the prophet Ezekiel foretells a rebirth. In a great vision, of which we read only three paltry verses, he sees a valley full of dead bones. The Lord commands him to breathe on them, and in Hebrew the same word is used for breath and Spirit. Ezekiel breathes on them the enlivening Spirit of the Lord. The bones come together, are covered with flesh and sinews, and become ‘a great, an immense army’. Directly, the prophet is foretelling the rebirth of Israel as a nation, that they will return to life once again in the Promised Land, given life as a nation once more. We can, however, read this prophecy in the light of the biblical revelation as a whole, and see that it is hinting at and mysteriously suggesting a further meaning. In this fullness of meaning the Church has always understood the prophecy as a promise of personal resurrection through the Spirit of God. We are on the threshold of the celebration of the Resurrection of Christ at Easter, and so of our own resurrection. This reading partners today’s gospel reading about the new life given to Lazarus. HW
Responsorial Psalm – Psalm 129(130)
Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord, Lord, hear my voice! O let your ears be attentive to the voice of my pleading.
If you, O Lord, should mark our guilt, Lord, who would survive? But with you is found forgiveness: for this we revere you.
My soul is waiting for the Lord. I count on his word. My soul is longing for the Lord more than watchman for daybreak.(Let the watchman count on daybreak and Israel on the Lord.)
Because with the Lord there is mercy and fullness of redemption, Israel indeed he will redeem from all its iniquity.
Second reading – Romans 8:8-11
The Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you
People who are interested only in unspiritual things can never be pleasing to God. Your interests, however, are not in the unspiritual, but in the spiritual, since the Spirit of God has made his home in you. In fact, unless you possessed the Spirit of Christ you would not belong to him. Though your body may be dead it is because of sin, but if Christ is in you then your spirit is life itself because you have been justified; and if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, then he who raised Jesus from the dead will give life to your own mortal bodies through his Spirit living in you.
Paul has described and analysed the process of salvation through Jesus’ offering of himself in loving obedience to his Father, and our own integration into Christ by being plunged into him in baptism, and so joining him in his death and resurrection. This eighth chapter is the chapter of the Spirit, considering how we are transformed by the Spirit of Christ, now become our own spirit, through which e live. The Spirit of the Risen Christ is already in us and is empowering us, but our bodies are not yet transformed, as they will be in the final resurrection. In the later Pauline epistles (Colossians and Ephesians) this is expressed differently: God has already brought you to life with Christ. You have already been raised up: it remains only for this risen life to be revealed with him in glory (Colossians 2.12; 3.4). The Spirit of God and of Christ, described in the Johannine writings as the Paraclete or Helper, leads us into all truth, giving us an ever deeper appreciation of God’s gifts to us. The Spirit also gives us strength and zeal to do God’s work in all our ways of life. HW
Gospel: John 11:1-45 – I am the resurrection and the life
There was a man named Lazarus who lived in the village of Bethany with the two sisters, Mary and Martha, and he was ill. It was the same Mary, the sister of the sick man Lazarus, who anointed the Lord with ointment and wiped his feet with her hair. The sisters sent this message to Jesus, ‘Lord, the man you love is ill.’ On receiving the message, Jesus said, ‘This sickness will end not in death but in God’s glory, and through it the Son of God will be glorified.’
Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, yet when he heard that Lazarus was ill he stayed where he was for two more days before saying to the disciples, ‘Let us go to Judaea.’ The disciples said, ‘Rabbi, it is not long since the Jews wanted to stone you; are you going back again?’ Jesus replied: ‘Are there not twelve hours in the day? A man can walk in the daytime without stumbling because he has the light of this world to see by; but if he walks at night he stumbles, because there is no light to guide him.’
He said that and then added, ‘Our friend Lazarus is resting, I am going to wake him.’ The disciples said to him, ‘Lord, if he is able to rest he is sure to get better.’ The phrase Jesus used referred to the death of Lazarus, but they thought that by ‘rest’ he meant ‘sleep’, so Jesus put it plainly, ‘Lazarus is dead; and for your sake I am glad I was not there because now you will believe. But let us go to him.’ Then Thomas – known as the Twin – said to the other disciples, ‘Let us go too, and die with him.’
On arriving, Jesus found that Lazarus had been in the tomb for four days already. Bethany is only about two miles from Jerusalem, and many Jews had come to Martha and Mary to sympathise with them over their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus had come she went to meet him. Mary remained sitting in the house. Martha said to Jesus, ‘If you had been here, my brother would not have died, but I know that, even now, whatever you ask of God, he will grant you.’ ‘Your brother’ said Jesus to her ‘will rise again.’ Martha said, ‘I know he will rise again at the resurrection on the last day.’ Jesus said,
‘I am the resurrection and the life. If anyone believes in me, even though he dies he will live, and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?’
‘Yes, Lord,’ she said ‘I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, the one who was to come into this world.’
When she had said this, she went and called her sister Mary, saying in a low voice, ‘The Master is here and wants to see you.’ Hearing this, Mary got up quickly and went to him. Jesus had not yet come into the village; he was still at the place where Martha had met him. When the Jews who were in the house sympathising with Mary saw her get up so quickly and go out, they followed her, thinking that she was going to the tomb to weep there.
Mary went to Jesus, and as soon as she saw him she threw herself at his feet, saying, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’ At the sight of her tears, and those of the Jews who followed her, Jesus said in great distress, with a sigh that came straight from the heart, ‘Where have you put him?’ They said, ‘Lord, come and see.’ Jesus wept; and the Jews said, ‘See how much he loved him!’ But there were some who remarked, ‘He opened the eyes of the blind man, could he not have prevented this man’s death?’ Still sighing, Jesus reached the tomb: it was a cave with a stone to close the opening. Jesus said, ‘Take the stone away.’ Martha said to him, ‘Lord, by now he will smell; this is the fourth day.’ Jesus replied, ‘Have I not told you that if you believe you will see the glory of God?’ So they took away the stone. Then Jesus lifted up his eyes and said:
‘Father, I thank you for hearing my prayer. I knew indeed that you always hear me, but I speak for the sake of all these who stand round me, so that they may believe it was you who sent me.’
When he had said this, he cried in a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, here! Come out!’ The dead man came out, his feet and hands bound with bands of stuff and a cloth round his face. Jesus said to them, ‘Unbind him, let him go free.’
Many of the Jews who had come to visit Mary and had seen what he did believed in him.
The third of these great Johannine gospel readings on the Sundays of Lent, leading up to and preparing us for the baptisms of the new members of Christ at the Easter Vigil, grips us with the story of Jesus’ gift of life to his friend Lazarus. This is not the same as the gift of life to us by Jesus in the resurrection, for Lazarus returns to ordinary human life, and will die again, whereas the Christian resurrection transforms us into a new way of life, giving us a life which is an participation in the divine life. But the resurrection of Lazarus is the last and greatest of Jesus’ signs, his marvellous works which point towards and hint at this final gift of divine life. The first of the signs was the transformation of the water of the Law into the wine of the messianic wedding banquet at Cana. These signs show who Jesus really is. As well as showing the divine power of Jesus – for only God can give life – they also show the real, human love of Jesus for his friends. He is upset by Lazarus’ death and weeps for him, sharing the human sorrow of his family as he shares our sorrows too. HW
Bless, O Lord, your people, who long for the gift of your mercy, and grant that what, at your prompting, they desire they may receive by your generous gift. Through Christ our Lord.
(The above text is from Catholic Calander / Universalis.com / The Roman Missal and Lectionary Readings of the Catholic Church)