5th Sunday of Lent
Jesus’ coming late to Lazarus’ funeral was at the risk of his own death, but he promises resurrection and eternal life to all who trust in him. The death and new life theme also runs through today’s readings; in the first reading, the whole nation of Israel during their long exile felt like a dried-up corpse; and for St Paul, the dynamic of dying and rising with Christ is at the heart of each Christian’s life.
Ezek 37:12-14. During the Babylonian exile, God’s people are compared to a pile of dried bones; so their return from exile will be like a resurrection, when God breathes life back into them.
Rom 8:8-11. In baptism Christians hasve died to our former sinful existence and begun to lead a new life in the Spirit of Jesus, The presence of this Spirit is our guarantee of future resurrection.
Jn 11:1-45. Jesus’s raising of Lazarus shows his divine power and points to his continuous life-giving activity.
– that our God may give us the grace of friendship and fidelity in our lives.
– that we may always remain faithful to our friends, especially in their time of greatest need.
– for our friends that they will always remain true to God and to us.
– for all of our friends and relations who have departed this life, that they may enjoy the eternal life promised by Jesus.
Today I serve my God Anew(John Walsh)
The story of the journey of each of us to God is a story of fresh beginnings. Saint Bernard, the Cistercian Abbot of Clairvaux, used to say each morning, “This day I will begin to serve my God anew.” In ancient Greek mythology there was a fable about the Phoenix, a bird reputed to live an immensely long time. And when it sensed at the end of every five hundred years that death was drawing near, it built a kind of funeral pyre around itself, and set fire to it. Then from the ashes of this fire the Phoenix rose again, rejuvenated and resplendent, to begin a new cycle in its existence.
Of course this was a myth, but year after year in our lives, Lent, in a real sense, is, or should be, a time of revitalisation, of renewal, a time when we once again dedicate our lives, in a fuller way, to Almighty God. And, appropriately, all three readings for this Sunday are concerned with resurrection to newness of life.
In the OT reading, Ezekiel, who prophesied during the exile in Babylon, declares his hope of Israel’s return from exile to their own native soil, an event which he compares with a rising again from the grave. God will put his Spirit within his people, and we will awake to a new awareness of his living presence among us. St Paul, in his reading, refers to how Christ has burst the bonds of death and decay by his resurrection, and how in rising from the dead, he has taken on a new and totally transformed existence.
The Spirit which raised Christ from the dead is received by all Christians at the moment of baptism, and this indwelling Spirit is a sign of new life within us, which can never be destroyed, even with the death of our bodies. The state of each of us, in this life, is governed by two forces in some conflict with each other – the life of the Spirit, and the death of the body. These two are emphasised in the high point of today’s gospel about the raising of Lazarus, where Christ says, “I am the resurrection. Whoever believes in me, even though they die, they will live, and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.” On another occasion beside the Sea of Galilee Jesus had promised, ” It is my Father’s will that whoever sees the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and that I shall raise him up on the last day” (Jn 6:40).
“Seeing the Son” means to regard him with the inner eye of faith, and acknowledge Jesus as truly the Son sent by the Father. But, just as the customary circular grave-stone of that time shut off Lazarus in the tomb from the outside world of light and life, so we, by the manner of life we lead, can erect a barrier between ourselves and Christ, so that we cannot see him and so have life. This obstacle to the grace of God can be an accumulation of compromises, neglect, self-deception, settling for a second-rate form of Christianity.
Lent is a time for removing these obstacles, for renewing the life of Christ’s holy Spirit within us. We can arrive at the goal of our life in this world only by allowing the Spirit of Jesus to dwell in us, to direct us, to permeate our whole being, to the extent that we live through God and for God. Without the Spirit which is the true source of life, the body, through the influence of sin becomes inert. “People who are taken up solely with material things can never be pleasing to God” (Rom 8:8).
May this Lenten season leave each one of us with a clearer, and more real, vision of that eternal glory which God has promised will be ours, if only we have a deep and lasting faith in his word, and are obedient to the message he addresses to us through his divine Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.
Greater Love Than This (Liam Swords)
Some years ago, I took up a temporary assignment in a parish in Los Angeles. It is customary for priests there to take their day-off on Mondays. Usually, they get together in a foursome to play golf during the day and eat out in a restaurant in the evening. The time-honoured custom among the clergy in the US is to wear civilian clothes when off-duty. In the climate of Southern California, this usually consists of open-neck shirt and pants. While there, I followed the local custom. One such evening, with three of my clerical friends, all in our early thirties, I ended up in a restaurant. We exchanged a few pleasantries with the pretty young waitress who came to serve us, taking a little advantage of our anonymity. Then we settled down to the serious business of eating. Half-way through the meal, the waitress returned. “Everything O.K., Fathers?” she enquired. I was dumbfounded. How did she know we were priests? It was a new twist on the old dictum: “Once a priest, always a priest.” One of my American colleagues enlightened me. “In this country,” he said, “four males sitting together are either four homosexuals or four priests.”
I was saddened then and I am more saddened now. In all other ages we would have been automatically assumed to have been friends. In a world obsessed by sex, the only real casualty is friendship. Every relationship is now deemed to have a hidden agenda, invariably sexual. There is no place for a platonic friendship free from suspicion. It was not always so. In the ancient world friendship was among the cardinal virtues. Cicero wrote one of his finest treatises on the subject. Any historical researcher could reproduce correspondence among friends whose language would be regarded today as ambiguous, to say the least. An Irish Jacobite writing to his friend on the eve of a battle where he was to lose his life, forgave him a debt, “since no man breathing loves you more than I do.”
Strange that the church neglects friendship so much in its preaching. It has become the Cinderella of the virtues. And yet, Jesus Christ valued it so much, as today’s gospel records, that he was willing to give his life for it. Jesus had many disciples and numerous followers but he had only three friends, two girls and their brother, in the village of Bethany. “Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.”
When he wept at the tomb of Lazarus, the Jews remarked, “See how much he loved him.” His friendship for Lazarus was to cost Jesus his life. Even his disciples had warned him against returning to Bethany, a mere stone’s throw from Jerusalem. There, the established religion, threatened by the growing Jesus-movement among their adherents, were seeking a pretext to do away with him. The raising of Lazarus, right there in Bethany under their noses, was the final provocation. “Greater love than this no man has, that a man lays down his life for his friend.” The story of our salvation is also the story of a great friendship.
Adolescence is the great period of friendship in our lives. Every teenager finds a best friend before he ever finds his first love. And friendships made then endure a lifetime. Neither time nor space seems to diminish the relationship. It is strange how even after long separation, we can pick up again years later where we left off in our schooldays. As we grow older, the number of our acquaintances multiply but real friendship remains elusive. We become more economic with our affections and less inclined to invest them even in those we like. But friendship is not one of life’s peripheral options. If Jesus Christ, the Son of God, treasured the friendship of Mary, Martha and their brother Lazarus, it would be foolish of us to think we can manage without them.
Life After Life (Jack McArdle)
Have you noticed that the gospels these Sundays are long? Once again, today, we have a story that contains central issues of the message and mission of Jesus. It is about love, about friendship, about life, and about death. There are some beautiful human touches like, for example, when Jesus wept for his friend Lazarus, or when their encounter reveals a warm relationship between himself and Martha and Mary.
Some years ago a book appeared, called Life After Life, which was closely followed by another book on the same subject. They dealt with what were called “near-death” experiences. To all intents and purposes, a person may be seen and be presumed to be dead and, then, through electric shock, or some such means of resuscitation, the heart is got pumping again and the person recovers. During that time, between the apparent death and the re-commencement of heart activity, the person had experienced what I have called the “near-death” experience. Many of these experiences had a great deal in common. They experienced themselves outside the body, looking down at the body. They were conscious of being drawn towards a tunnel of bright light and, for those who travelled along that tunnel for any length, they could see pre-deceased relatives of theirs coming to meet them. One thing they all seemed to share in common was that, when the heart got going, and they had to return to the life they had known, they were disappointed and some of them were clearly annoyed. In general, it could be said that they lost all fear of death through the process, and were willing to face it again when the time came.
Lazarus had gone through that experience, except he had gone all the way. In fact, he was dead for four days. I am in no position to make a comment, but I can only presume that, on his return, he had no memory of his experience. Don’t forget, Lazarus was brought back to life. Unlike Jesus, at a later stage, Lazarus still had to travel down that same road. In a way, you could say that Jesus didn’t do him any great favour. I can understand the strong response of Jesus when he met the widow of Naim going to bury her only son. It is normal for a child to bury a parent, but it is never easy for a parent to have to bury a child. Lazarus, Martha, and Mary were special friends of Jesus; so much so that Jesus wept at Lazarus” graveside. They were tears of love, not tears of despair. Grief is the price you pay for love. If you never want to cry at a funeral, then don’t ever love anyone. That would be a high price to pay to avoid something that is essentially part of life itself.
There is a lot of material for reflection and for prayer in today’s gospel, but I will mention just one more. Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, but Lazarus would have died again within a short while, because he was bandaged from head to toe, and he would have smothered. Jesus turned to those around him and asked them to complete his work, “Unwrap him and let him go.” This is a good example of how Jesus involves us directly in his work. We all know people who need to be freed from bondage of one kind or another. They need affirmation, confirmation, encouragement, and a sense of their own worth before they can begin to experience freedom again. In my dealing with others, I can lift them up or put them down. I can be Jesus’ touch-person in their lives and, while it is he alone who can give them new life, I can help complete his work, and greatly enable their freedom.
In the place of Lazarus (Alex McAllister)
It seems a bit strange that the Church presents us with this gospel reading today on the Fifth Sunday of Lent, it seems to be clearly about the resurrection and yet we haven’t got there yet, we are still plodding through Lent and have to get through Maundy Thursday and Good Friday before we get to the resurrection. What’s going on; have the Church’s liturgical engineers got it all wrong?
Can I suggest that this text is more about death than resurrection? After all, Lazarus isn’t walking around today; he had to undergo another death. This text is more about our life and death here and now rather than about the resurrection. We will have time enough to consider the resurrection when we get to Easter Sunday and the weeks of celebration afterwards.
St Ignatius in his book on the Spiritual Exercises suggests that when we come to consider a particular Gospel passage we should put ourselves in the place of each character in turn and use our imagination to see how we would feel in the circumstances. This can be a most revealing exercise.
How about putting yourself in the place of Lazarus? You are dead to everything and then you hear a voice: ‘Come out, Lazarus.’ You look around and there you are lying in a tomb swathed in bandages and surrounded by darkness. If we ask ourselves how we would feel the answer, of course, would be different for everyone but I think we might be surprised at how many would say: Thanks Lord, but I’d prefer to stay where I am.
But putting ourselves in Lazarus’s place we might feel we are unable to move or perhaps we might become aware of how tomb-like our present way of life really is. This exercise might arouse in us a sense of hope; rekindle a longing for freedom which has perhaps been buried for years.
Putting ourselves into the place of a character from scripture can awake all kinds of thoughts within us and lead us to turn to God in prayer with new words on our lips. And yet it is something so simple that we are surprised that we never thought about it ourselves.
I think that this Gospel reading is placed here in Lent to help us to realise that we have to live this life to the full and that it is often only through experiencing death that we are shocked into it. This can happen to us in all sorts of ways; often it can happen through a loss or bereavement, it might be through a religious experience, or a meeting with someone significant. It may be a terrible mistake that we have made or an experience of suffering. It is amazing how often it takes something negative to make us realise how much there is that is truly positive and worth living for.
Ready for a Miracle? (Munachi Ezeogu)
Of all the miracles Jesus did, the raising of Lazarus ranks as the most astonishing to the people of his time. Traditional Jewish belief had it that the soul of a dead person somehow remains with the body for three days. After three days the soul departs finally from the body never to return, and that is when corruption sets in. When Martha objects to the opening of the tomb and says, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days” (John 11:39), she is expressing the common view that this is now a hopeless situation. Is that why Jesus delayed coming to the funeral, to let the situation become “impossible” before acting on it? G.K. Chesterton once said, “Hope means hoping when things are hopeless, or it is no virtue at all.” In traditional Jewish mentality bringing back to life a person who is already four days dead and decaying is as unthinkable as Ezekiel vision of grey, dry bones are restored to life.
For the early Christians the story of the raising of Lazarus was more than a pointer to the resurrection of Jesus. Jesus rose on the third day; his body never saw corruption. For them this miracle is a challenge to never give up hope even in the hopeless situations in which they found themselves as individuals, as a church or as a nation. It is never too late for God to revive and revitalise a person, a church or a nation. But first we must learn to cooperate with God.
How can we cooperate with God so as to experience God’s resurrection power in our lives and in our world? Well, everyone knows the answer already: faith. But that is not the point that John makes in this story. In fact there is no one in the story, not even Mary or Martha, who believed that Jesus could bring Lazarus back to life after four days dead. No one expected him to do it, so expectant faith is not the emphasis here. Rather the emphasis in the story on how we cooperate with a miracle-working God is placed on practical obedience and doing God’s will.
To effect the miracle, Jesus issues three commands and all of them are obeyed to the letter. That is how the miracle happens. First, “Jesus said, ‘Roll away the stone.’ ? So they rolled away the stone” (vv 39-41). Did the people understand why they should do this heavy work of rolling away the tombstone to expose a stinking corpse? You bet they didn’t. But it was their faith in Jesus expressing itself not through intellectual agreement with Jesus but through practical agreement with him, through obedience. Why didn’t Jesus command the stone to roll away of its own accord without bothering the people? We don’t quite know. All we know is that divine power seems always to be activated by human cooperation and stifled by non-cooperation. As C.S. Lewis said, “God seems to do nothing of Himself which He can possibly delegate to His creatures.” God will not do by a miracle what we can do by obedience.
Many Christian individuals and communities today have fallen victim to the death of sin. Many are already in the tomb of hopelessness and decay, in the bondage of sinful habits and attitudes. Nothing short of a miracle can bring us back to life in Christ. Jesus is ready for the miracle. He himself said, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). Are we ready to cooperate with him for the miracle. Are we ready to roll away the stone that stands between us and the light of Christ’s face? Are we ready to take the first step to come out of the place of death? Are we ready to unbind (i.e. forgive) one another and let them go free?
First Reading: Ezekiel 37:12-14
Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act,” says the Lord.
Second Reading: Epistle to the Romans 8:8-11
Those who are in the flesh cannot please God. But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. 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.
Gospel: John 11:1-45
or, shorter version: 11:3-7, 20-27, 33-45
Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.”
But when Jesus heard it, he said, “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was. Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.”
The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?” Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is ot in them.” After saying this, he told them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.”
The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.” Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead. For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”
When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother.
When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. Buteven now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.”
Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”
When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to wep there. When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt 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 came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus began to weep. So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”
Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.” Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.