Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Bernadette Parish, Fall River, MA
Fifth Sunday of Lent, Year A
April 6, 2014
Ezek 37:12-14, Ps 130, Rom 8:8-11, Jn 11:1-45
To listen to an audio recording of this homily, please click below:
The following text guided the homily:
Jesus’ Desire to Increase the Faith of the Apostles and Our Faith
The episode of Jesus’ raising Lazarus from the dead is so rich that whole retreats can 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 of our faith. 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 that will help us not only better appreciate this miracle but also grasp the great things Jesus will accomplish during Holy Week in Jerusalem. I’ll focus on three of those truths.
The depth of Jesus’ love for Lazarus and for us
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 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).
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. Just as much as St. John tells us that Jesus “loved Martha and her sister [Mary] and Lazarus,” and the crowd, seeing him weeping at the tomb, said, “Look at how much he loved him!,” so Jesus loves us just as personally and just as much. 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. … 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, like the healing of the Centurion’s servant, the royal official’s son and the daughter of the Syro-Phoenician woman (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 life. In a similar way, God could have come up with another way to save us without Jesus’ leaving heaven, without his taking on our flesh, without his 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. If we could listen to the angels, seeing this love that Jesus has for each of us, we would hear them saying, “Look at how much he loved them.” This great love is the first thing he wanted us to believe in by this miracle.
Jesus’ power to raise the dead even when everything seemed hopeless
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, that with God there is never a truly hopeless situation. He wanted them to witness again that He is the Lord of Life, the one sent to fulfill the prophecy we heard in today’s first reading from Ezekiel, that God would “open your graves and bring you up from your graves,” breathing life back into our dry bones.
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 for far more than four days — all those holy patriarchs, Jews and 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.
The personal nature of Resurrection and Life
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 events or things. Jesus wants us to recognize that resurrection and life are, rather, a person, or more specifically a relationships 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 friendship 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.” What happens after we die was doubtless something Martha, Lazarus, and Mary would have asked Jesus when they had him over their house as a guest and so she believed in the general resurrection at the end of time. But Jesus wanted her 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 than Lazarus did, but just as truly. He wants us to give the Holy Spirit total permission for him to raise our mortal bodies to the life of holiness.
But for us to experience it, we need not only to change our understanding of resurrection and life from concepts to a personal relationship, but many of us will have to change our understanding of Jesus — and the Holy Spirit he sends — from a concept, from an historical figure, to a living, acting, breathing, loving Savior present right now seeking to raise us to life. When Jesus asked Martha, “Do you believe this?,” she didn’t reply merely, “Yes, Lord!” She gave us the grounds of her faith. She said, “Yes, Lord. I have come to believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, the one who is coming into the world.” Because of her living faith in Jesus, because of her trust in him, she commited herself to believing anything he would say, even if it seemed hard or even impossible to believe. Because of her faith, Martha recognized that the Resurrection and the Life was standing before her! Because of her faith, she would be raised from the dead by her faith-filled friendship with Jesus even before her brother Lazarus would be liberated from the tomb! Jesus wants us to have that same resurrection now.
Entering into Communion with Jesus’ Risen Life
But the question is: How? How do we, in this life, encounter and befriend Jesus, as Martha, Mary and Lazarus did? How do we experience the resurrection and the life in the present that he wants to give us? The deepest answer is that Jesus created the sacraments as the way, par excellence, for us to enter into his risen life and into a much deeper personal, faith-filled relationship with him. The sacraments help us to pass from death to life. We can mention three of them today:
In baptism, we die with Christ and rise with him. This is the journey for which elect catechumens around the world 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 catechumens in under two weeks. But it’s also supposed to be lived when each of us, at the Easter Vigil, renews our baptismal promises. Lent is an annual catechumenate for us all preparing us to receive or renew the graces of baptism at Easter so that all of us may experience a profound spiritual rebirth and walk ever more deeply in the baptismal “newness of life” that never ages.
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 Penance, 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. Jesus rolls away the stones from our tombs and beckons: “Come out! Come out of the tomb of tepidity, the sepulcher of sloth, the burial chamber of bitterness! Come out of your indifference! Leave behind your sins, your selfishness, your old life full of cobwebs in a dark crypt.” He sends his priests forth to unbind us from the sins that holds us down.
Back in 1993, Pope John Paul II, who will be canonized three weeks from today, said, “The tears of Jesus reveals, so to speak, God’s tears, his paternal tenderness, his merciful judgment before that most profound and tragic death of man which is sin, of which his physical death is a consequence. As St. Paul said, ‘the wages of sin’ is death. Christ weeps and prays for each sinner, so that he may be freed from the burial cloths that imprison him and might leave the tomb to return to life, so that he might have life.”
Christ is weeping for us when we’re in sin, whenever we entomb ourselves in the death to which sin leads, and he wants to liberate us. 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 our 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 to 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 Reconciliation so that we might receive something far greater than Lazarus experienced. St. John Vianney, the patron saint of priests, used to say, “A great miracle is needed to raise a poor soul in the state of sin. Yes, a greater miracle that what the Lord did to raise Lazarus!”
In his Angelus meditation this morning in St. Peter’s Square, Pope Francis talked about this connection between the miraculous raising of Lazarus and the way Jesus wants to liberate us from sin. Jesus’ peremptory cry “Come out!,” he said, “is addressed to every person, … because we are all marked by death, all of us; it is the voice of One Who is the master of life, one who will all ‘should have [life] more abundantly”’(Jn 10:10). Christ is not resigned to the sepulchers that we have constructed with our choices of evil and death, with our mistakes, with our sins. … He invites us, almost orders us, to come out from the tombs into which our sins have plunged us. He calls us insistently to come out of the darkness of the prison in which we are enclosed, contenting ourselves with a false, selfish, mediocre life. ‘Come forth!’ He says. ‘Come forth!’ It is a beautiful invitation to true freedom, to allow us to grab onto these words of Jesus that He repeats to each one of us today, an invitation that allows us to free ourselves from the ‘bands’ … of pride, because pride makes us slaves, slaves of ourselves, slaves of so many idols, slaves of so many things. Our resurrection begins here: when we decide to obey the commands of Jesus to come into the light, to life; when the masks fall from our faces — so many times we are masked by sin: the masks must fall! — and we rediscover the courage of our original faces, created in the image and likeness of God. The act of Jesus by which He raised Lazarus demonstrates the end to which the power of the Grace of God can arrive, and the end, therefore to which our conversion, our change can arrive. But listen well: there is no other limit to the divine mercy offered to all [than our refusal to obey Jesus’ call to come out of the tomb of sin]. There is no other limit to the divine mercy offered to all!” And he had the 60,0000 people in St. Peter’s square repeat the phrase with him two times: “There is no other limit to the divine mercy offered to all! There is no other limit to the divine mercy offered to all! The Lord,” he finished, “is always ready to take away the tombstone of our sins, which separate us from Him, the light of the living.”
The Lord is offering to free us from the sepulcher of sin again this week in Confession on Monday night at 6 pm and then at the ordinary times on Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning. Leave your tombs behind and come to Christ so that he can heal you and give you the joy of true resurrection!
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. No wonder why catechumens are experiencing such hunger pains for Christ in the Eucharist, whom they will receive for the first time in less than two weeks! No wonder our first Communion class cannot wait until May 18. 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: “For as true man, [Jesus] 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.” Those “sacred mysteries”referred to are the sacraments. Each of the Sacraments is supposed to do in us what Christ did to Lazarus — and even more!
Putting our faith into action
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 — Baptism, Confession, and 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 in what I did to found the Sacrament of Confession to give you the joy of resurrection from the death of sin? Do you believe me when I tell you, ‘This is my body… given for you?’ Do you trust in me when I say, ‘This is the chalice of my blood… poured out for you?’ Then, Jesus tells us, “put your faith in me now: Come out of your tomb and live in friendship with me in this world so that that friendship, that resurrection and that life will continue forever!”
The readings for today’s Mass were:
O my people, I will open your graves
and have you rise from them,
and bring you back to the land of Israel.
Then you shall know that I am the LORD,
when I open your graves and have you rise from them,
O my people!
I will put my spirit in you that you may live,
and I will settle you upon your land;
thus you shall know that I am the LORD.
I have promised, and I will do it, says the LORD.
PS 130:1-2, 3-4, 5-6, 7-8
Out of the depths I cry to you, O LORD;
LORD, hear my voice!
Let your ears be attentive
to my voice in supplication.
R/ With the Lord there is mercy and fullness of redemption.
If you, O LORD, mark iniquities,
LORD, who can stand?
But with you is forgiveness,
that you may be revered.
R/ With the Lord there is mercy and fullness of redemption.
I trust in the LORD;
my soul trusts in his word.
More than sentinels wait for the dawn,
let Israel wait for the LORD.
R/ With the Lord there is mercy and fullness of redemption.
For with the LORD is kindness
and with him is plenteous redemption;
And he will redeem Israel
from all their iniquities.
R/ With the Lord there is mercy and fullness of redemption.
Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.
But you are not in the flesh;
on the contrary, you are in the spirit,
if only the Spirit of God dwells in you.
Whoever does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him.
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.
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 him 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?”
“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.