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Fifth Sunday of Lent: Resurrection of Lazarus

Sunday, April 06, 2014
Fifth Sunday of Lent
Readings at Mass: Ez 37:12-14; Ps 130; Rom 8:8-11; John 11:1-45

Approaching the final week of Lent, we read John 11 with its climax on Good Friday in mind. In St John’s Gospel, we hear a story of the man Lazarus of Bethany, the same village of Mary and her sister Martha. But why not just tell the miracle rather than give all this preliminary story? Because as we discover, to have sufferings is the privilege of those especially dear to God. First of all, the sisters Martha and Mary go to Jesus saying “Master, the one you love is ill”. They tell Jesus what is wrong, but they don’t actually ask for anything. So this first message that John might be conveying is asking, perhaps this is one way to approaching Jesus about needs in this way? We often don’t know what we should exactly ask, lest we presume, over-reach or under-reach. Is this a model prayer for our own personal crises? “Look, pay attention for your friend is very sick!”

The reaction of Jesus, to remain for two days in the place he was, is peculiar. Perhaps by the time the messengers reached Jesus, he already knew that Lazarus had died? Frederick Bruner, in his book on the Gospel of John, makes the point that the timing of Jesus is determined exclusively by the Father. We see this not just in the story of Lazarus, but elsewhere in John’s Gospel. But the puzzling delay remains mysterious. The timing of Jesus is strange: who hears of a friend’s family emergency and stays where he is? We must admit with honesty that the Lord’s timing is not always obviously good. This is more or less what we can take from the dialogue with Mary and Martha who are grieving a deceased Lazarus. The honesty of this part of the Gospel goes with a paraphrased dictum of James Baldwin from his book The Fire Next Time, “The Lord never seems to get there when you want him, but when he arrives he’s always right on time”. This saying fits the story in the end. It will all come out in the wash. But it does not lessen the pain of the afflicted parties in the present time.

The paradoxical theme also in the story of the raising of Lazarus, is the Council of Jews and High priests who are plotting to have Jesus put to death. Why was it they were so angered by this miracle? They became so convinced Jesus was some sort of deceptive sorcerer. When Jesus arrived at the tomb of Lazarus, his body had already been in the tomb for four days. Israel’s Rabbinic faith taught that for three days, a soul lingered about a body, but on the fourth day it left permanently. But when Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead, this teaching is shattered. There was no question about it - Lazarus was dead and to the point of decomposing, as “by now there will be a stench”. But we have a reassurance from Jesus, if you believe you will see the glory of God.

The hope that we have from reading all of the Gospels is that Jesus loves his friends. However, there is still something that sits uncomfortably with the Lazarus story. At least, I feel uncomfortable reflecting on it! Yes, Lazarus was raised from the dead and returned to life. But, being a mortal body, Lazarus would have died (again) later in his life. Perhaps you detect a dour Scot reflecting on death? That may be so, but the point is, Lazarus was just as we are, an immortal soul in a mortal body made of flesh and blood. Lazarus would have died again, and returned to earth as bone and dust. The hope that Christ offers is resurrection for the friend who believes in him. Even when that person dies, he will live again (cf. John 11:25-26). This great promise is that when we die our immortal souls will somehow detach from our physical bodies. And by miracle, we should be able to see without eyes, have some sort of existence with no body. That is a prospect that fills me with fear and trepidation but also curiosity, thinking of the unknown nature of dying and what it is to see God our Father. We are promised somehow, that we will be reunited with our earthly bodies by miracle and through Jesus Christ we will be resurrected into life eternal, at the end of time. 

In the Catholic creed, it begins with “credo in unum deum”. This translates from latin to english as I believe into one God. St Augustine (NPNF 7:276 on John 49:19) is convinced that believing into Christ places Christ into the believer - it is that uncomplicated. “For if there is faith in us, Christ is in us”. Some simple words to remind us that our journey into the trinity starts on this world, with love into Christ.

Luke Doherty OP


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