Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Francis Xavier Church, Hyannis, MA
Fifth Sunday of Lent, Year A
March 13, 2005
Ezek 37:12-14; Rom 8:8-11; Jn 11:1-45
1) The episode of Jesus’ raising Lazarus from the dead is so rich that whole retreats could be preached upon it. The Church gives it to us on the Sunday before Palm Sunday not only because it is meant to frame our preparation for Holy Week, but even more simply, because it is what Jesus did right before he entered Jerusalem on a donkey. By it, Jesus was teaching his disciples 2000 years ago — and continues to teach us today — invaluable lessons needed to understand what is going to happen next week. Jesus said to his followers before heading to Bethany, “Lazarus is dead. For your sake I am glad I was not there, SO THAT YOU MAY BELIEVE.” Jesus worked the miracle the way he did — from his initial delay, to the words he chose, to his prayer to the Father, to his calling forth of Lazarus after four days in the tomb — so that WE MAY BELIEVE certain crucial truths will help us not only better appreciate this miracle but also grasp the great things Jesus will during Holy Week in Jerusalem. I’ll focus on three of those truths.
2) The first lesson Jesus communicates by the way he worked this miracle is that HE IS WILLING TO DIE for each of his disciples. As soon as Jesus announced that he would go to Lazarus, the disciples exclaimed, “The Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?” Later, when Jesus reiterated that he was going, St. Thomas, who was one of the most realistic and perhaps pessimistic of the disciples, said simply, “Let us also go, so that we may die with him.” They all recognized that Jesus was risking his life to go bring Lazarus back to life. We now know in hindsight what Jesus recognized in foresight: that their worst fears were about to come true — Jesus would be captured, tortured and killed. Jesus would indeed give his life to return Lazarus to life. But Jesus loved Lazarus enough to do it. Lazarus was his friend, and as Jesus would say about a week later during the Last Supper, “No one has any greater love than this, to lay down his life for his friends” (Jn 15:13).
3) The central truth Jesus wants us to capture is that WE ARE HIS FRIENDS, TOO, and that out of love for us he went up the mountain not just to bring Lazarus back to life, but to give his life to bring EACH OF US back to life. Right after he described that no one has greater love than to lay down his life for his friends, he said: “YOU are my friends if you do what I command you. I no longer call you servants, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father” (Jn 15:14-15). It’s obvious that Jesus, from a distance, could have cured Lazarus and even brought him back to life. After all, he had already worked several such miracles from a distance (Mt 8:13; Mt 15:28; Jn 4:50). By going up to work the miracle in person, however, Jesus was showing everyone that helping Lazarus was worth his own life. In the same way, God could have come up with another way to save us without Jesus’ going up to Calvary and being massacred on a Cross, but he likewise wanted to show us we were worth saving. The greatest source of our human dignity is that Jesus accounted our lives more valuable than his own, and was willing to take our place on death row, to give his life for ours. This GREAT LOVE is the first thing he wanted us to believe in by this miracle.
4) The second thing Jesus wanted to manifest through this miracle was his POWER OVER DEATH, so that we might have faith in what he said would happen to him after his death and what would happen to us after our death. Even though Jesus had already raised from the dead both the daughter of Jairus (Mk 5:22 ff) and the only son of the widow of Nain (Lk 7:11 ff), he knew that his disciples would have a terribly difficult time maintaining hope after they would see him tortured, crucified, and buried in the tomb the following week. He wanted to give them a clear example that with God all things are possible. He wanted them to witness again that He is the Lord of Life, the one sent to fulfill the prophecy announced in Ezekiel, that God would “open your graves and bring you up from your graves,” that he would breathe life back into dry bones (Ezek 37, first reading). The Jews believed that a person’s soul hovered around the body for three days after death; for Jesus to bring Lazarus back to life on the FOURTH day, when everyone knew Lazarus was “really, really dead,” was the greatest manifestation of Jesus’ divine power. While Lazarus’ resurrection was a resurrection “backward” — a resuscitation to an earthly life from which he would have to die again — Jesus’ resurrection and the resurrection in which he hoped we should share — which he prophesied in action by working this miracle — would be a resurrection “forward,” to a completely new state of life, from which we would never die again. In raising Lazarus, he manifested both his power and his desire to do this. And in raising him on the fourth day, he was also showing something else. He was indicating that he could also bring back to life all of those who had been dead far more than four days — all those holy patriarchs, Jews and even righteous gentiles, who had died even centuries before, all the way back to Adam and Eve, whose souls were then in Sheol. Like Jesus was patient before going to raise Lazarus, so the Blessed Trinity was patient in waiting millennia before Jesus came into the world, but the same glorious result would take place. This is the second thing Jesus wanted us to believe in by his miracle in Bethany.
5) The third thing Jesus shows us is what resurrection and life really are. Very often we think of “resurrection” and “life” as CONCEPTS, or STATES, or THINGS. Jesus wants us to recognize that resurrection and life are, rather, a PERSON, or more specifically a RELATIONSHIP WITH A PERSON. That person is Christ himself: “I AM the resurrection and the life!” To be risen from the dead, to be fully alive, means to be in a living, loving relationship with Jesus, who teaches us that resurrection and life are not meant to be deferred. Martha, in her dialogue with Jesus, showed that she believed in the “resurrection on the last day.” But Jesus wanted to realize that the resurrection and life he had come from heaven to bring were supposed to be experienced IN THE PRESENT through the right relationship with Christ and the Spirit he gives to our mortal bodies. St. Paul described this reality in the second reading: “If Christ is in you, … if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.” Jesus not only wants us to experience his resurrection and life eternally, but wants us to experience it NOW, under a different modality that Lazarus did, but just as truly. But for us to experience it, we need not only to change our understanding of resurrection and life from concepts to a person, but many of us will have to change our understanding of JESUS from a concept, from an historical figure, to a living, acting, breathing, loving Savior present right now.
6) How do we, in this life, encounter Jesus as the resurrection and the life? Jesus created the sacraments as the way, par excellence, for us to enter into his risen life and into a much deeper personal relationship with him. The sacraments help us to pass from death to life. We can mention three of them today:
a. Baptism — In baptism, we die with Christ and rise with him. This is the journey for which our catechumens are now preparing. St. Paul stressed this truth in his letter to the Romans, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6:3-4 ). Baptism gives us this newness of life. But it requires our being buried with Jesus in death, so that we might share in his resurrection. We’re called, like Thomas, to say, “Let us go up with him, so that we might die with him,” because it is only in dying with Jesus that we will share that resurrection. That Passover from death to life will happen in the life of our catechumens in under two weeks. As all of us await that beautiful day, the Lord wants us to recall the meaning of our own baptism, so that at Easter we might experience a great spiritual rebirth and walk ever more deeply in the baptismal “newness of life” that never ages.
b. Confession — The Fathers of the Church called confession our “second baptism.” When we’re spiritually dead through mortal sins committed after our baptism, when we’ve evicted the supernatural life of God from our souls by choosing in disguise Barabbas over Christ Jesus, the Lord doesn’t give up on us. ON THE DAY HE ROSE FROM THE DEAD, Easter Sunday Evening, Christ established the sacrament of confession, so that we might experience the full fruits of his resurrection in this life. He said to the apostles that blessed evening, “Just as the Father sent me [to forgive the sins of the world], so I send you.” He breathed on them so that they would receive the power of the Holy Spirit, and sent them out to forgive and retain sins in his name (Jn 20:19-23). His doing this on Easter Sunday points to the fact that every reconciliation is meant to be a RESURRECTION. Jesus stressed this truth in the parable of the Prodigal Son, which describes what happens when God forgives us. The father in the parable, who represents God the Father, runs out to meet his repentant son, restores him to full dignity, throws a huge celebration for the son’s return and then gives the reason for his joy: “For my son who was DEAD has COME TO LIFE AGAIN” (Lk 15:24). In the sacrament of confession, God brings us who are dead in sin to life again. He calls us out of our graves and puts his spirit once again within us (first reading). Jesus rolls away the stones from our tombs and becomes: “Come out! Come out of your indifference! Leave your sins, your sloth, your selfishness, your desperation behind!” He sends his priests forth to unbind us from the sins that holds us down. But we have to recognize we are sinners in need of that resurrection to new life, that our sins have put us in the tomb. Many Catholics today behave like their predecessors in Sardis in the Book of Revelation, who didn’t even realize that they were dead in sin. Jesus had St. John write to them, “I know your works: you have the reputation of being alive, but YOU ARE DEAD.” Jesus described how they had soiled their white baptismal garments with the stain of sins and called them remember the word they had heard, obey it and repent” (Rev 3:1-6). Each of us needs to realize that Jesus knows our works, too, and even though we might have the reputation for being alive, we, too, might have soiled those baptismal garments and in fact be dead in sin. Out of love, he created the sacrament of confession so that we might receive something far greater than Lazarus experienced. On Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday night this week, at 6 pm, Fr. Frechette and I will be hearing confessions so that Christ can heal you and give you the joy of true resurrection.
c. The Eucharist — The third encounter with Christ, the resurrection and the life, occurs in the Eucharist. One year before the Last Supper, Jesus gave us a glimpse of the power of the Eucharist, when he said it was the way SINE QUA NON for us to enter into his life: “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.” Then he stressed the Eucharist’s connection to HIS resurrection and OUR resurrection: “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day” (Jn 6:53-54). For those of us who want to experience his resurrection in this life and the next, the path Jesus gives us is worthy reception of the Eucharist. There is no greater way; there is no other way. No wonder why our catechumens are experiencing such hunger pains for Christ in the Eucharist, whom they will receive for the first time in less than two weeks! May their hunger be contagious, so that all of us might recognize not just WHOM we receive but WHAT he wishes to give us through worthy reception — his very risen life, a foretaste of eternal life with him.
The Eucharistic preface of this Mass summarizes for us the connection between the sacraments and the resurrection Christ wants to effect in us through them: “As a man like us, Jesus wept over the death of Lazarus his friend. As God and Lord of Life, he recalled Lazarus from the tomb. Today he extends to all of humanity his mercy and WITH HIS SACRAMENTS MAKES US PASS FROM DEATH TO LIFE.” Each of the Sacraments is supposed to do in us what Christ did to Lazarus — and even more!
7) We saw at the end of the Gospel that Jesus’ action led “many of the Jews who had come to Mary and seen what he had done to begin to believe in him.” Jesus had worked this miracle precisely so that his disciples might believe. But we also know that it led to another reaction: it led others “from that day… to plan to put him to death” (Jn 11:54). Similarly, Jesus’ words and actions today will either lead us to a much greater faith in him — in the reality of dying out of love for us, in the reality of his life and resurrection in the sacraments — OR it will lead to us to try TO PUT THAT MESSAGE TO DEATH within us. If what Jesus has done today leaves us unchanged, if it leaves us without a profound conversion, then that means that we have put that message to death within our hearts; and whenever we put that message to death, whatever the cause of the resistance, it means — whether we realize it or not — that we’re putting the Messenger to death, too.
8 ) Right after he told Martha that he is the resurrection and the life and that whoever lives and believes in him, even though he die, will live, Jesus asked her directly, “Do you believe this?” The same Jesus now turns to us and tells us the same truth. He reminds us of his great love for us that led him to trade his own life for ours. He recalls for us the great truths about the sacraments of resurrection, of baptism, of confession, and of the Eucharist and he puts us on the spot to determine whether it will be a source of life for us or whether we will try to put those gifts, and their Giver, to death. And so he asks each of us individually, as he asked Martha: “Do YOU believe this? Do you believe in my love? Do you believe my promises about the resurrection and the life? Do you believe when I tell you ‘this is my body… given for you?’ Do you trust in me when I say ‘this is the cup of my blood… shed for you?’ Then put your faith in me now: COME OUT OF YOUR TOMB!”