5 Sunday of Lent (A)
Readings: Ezekiel 37:12-14; Romans 8:8-11; John 11:1-45
AS WE APPROACH HOLY WEEK, we see Jesus come closer to the climax of his life and mission. As he comes near to Jerusalem, the setting for the final drama of his life, the threats of his enemies increase by the day. They are rallying their forces to get rid of him once for all.
The disciples are quite aware of the situation and not very keen on going anywhere near Jerusalem. They are quite alarmed, then, when Jesus says, “Let us go to Judea.” (Jerusalem is in Judea.) They remind him that the last time he was there the Jews wanted to stone him. “Are you going back there again?”
Jesus lets them know that fear and danger cannot be the deciding factors in his life and mission.
“A man can walk in the daytime without stumbling, because he has the light of this world to see by…” There are times for things to be done, tasks to be accomplished, missions to be carried out.
Whatever the risks involved, they have to be done and done now.
‘Lazarus is dead’
Jesus then gives his reason for wanting to go south. “Our friend Lazarus is ‘asleep’ and I am going to wake him.” You can almost hear the reaction of the disciples: “You are putting yourself – and us – in great danger just to wake someone up?! Why disturb him? Sleep is good for him.”
Then they are told bluntly, “Lazarus is dead.” For the believer, death is but a sleep from which one wakes to a new and unending life. And Jesus says he is glad, not because a close friend has died, but because it will be an opportunity for his disciples to know Jesus better, to increase their faith in who he is.
Thomas, the outspoken one, then says with bravado: “Let us go, too, and die with him.” It could be understood in a cynical sense but it also expressed the Christian calling to be with Jesus all the way, even into his suffering and death.
The house at Bethany
Jesus now approaches the home of Lazarus and his two sisters, Martha and Mary, at Bethany, just outside Jerusalem. Mary, the contemplative one, stays grieving in the house; Martha, the active one, comes out to greet Jesus. (It is interesting how their characters here conform to the image we have of them in Luke’s gospel.)
“If you had been here, my brother would not have died,” says Martha. Jesus is already recognised as a source of life and healing. “Your brother will rise again,” assures Jesus. Martha understands the words in the conventional sense of a final resurrection.
But Jesus goes on: “I AM the resurrection. 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?” To which Martha replies magnificently, recognising in Jesus the Messiah: “Lord, I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, the one who was to come into this world.” The profession of faith reserved in the Synoptic gospels for Peter are here heard on the lips of a woman. (We remember, too, that it was a woman, the Samaritan woman at the well, to whom Jesus first revealed his identity as the Christ.)
The words of Jesus say two things:
a. While physical death is the experience of all, Christians included, faith in Jesus brings promise of a life that never ends;
b. One who is totally united with Christ begins to enjoy right now true and never-ending life. It is not just something for the future.
The Master calls
Jesus is still outside the village as Martha goes to call her sister. “The Master is here and is calling you.” The Greek word for ‘is here’ is parestin, which corresponds to the noun parousia , the definitive appearance of Jesus in our lives. When Jesus comes – and he comes every day – he calls us and expects us to respond to his presence with the same eagerness that Mary did.
Grief at a friend’s death
In spite of the deeply symbolical and spiritual language that this passage contains, we come to the very human experience of people faced with death. Jesus himself is overcome with grief at the death of a close friend. The words indicate the intensity of his feelings: “in great distress”; “a sigh that came straight from the heart”; “Jesus wept”; and “still sighing”.
Just before giving life back to Lazarus, Jesus prays to his Father. Jesus is no mere wonder-worker. He is simply doing the work of God his Father, the Creator, Source and Giver of all life.
The “sign” about to take place is to lead people through Jesus to the Father who sent him. Union with our God is the one and only meaning of our living.
The actual raising of Lazarus seems almost an anti-climax. It is expressed in the briefest language and there are many questions we might have (e.g. what did he look like? how did he walk? what did he say?…) which are simply not answered. The story wants to focus on the central ‘sign’ which only confirms what Jesus had said of himself: “I AM the resurrection and the life”.
It is the fulfilment of the prophecy from Ezekiel in the First Reading. This reading is part of the famous parable of the valley full of dead bones which are brought to life, a parable about Israel, dead in sin and idolatry, being brought back to life in God. In today’s gospel, Lazarus represents all those who are being brought back to life, life in God. He represents especially all those who are brought into new life by baptism, sharing the very life of God.
Like the gospels of the last two Sundays (the Samaritan Woman and the Man Born Blind), this reading is directed at those preparing for Baptism at Easter. Baptism, as Paul tells us, is both a dying to one’s past and an entry into new life. The newly baptised person is “a new person” with a new life.
For us already baptised, we can do well to reflect on how much we have continued to see that life growing in us. That is the theme of Paul in the Second Reading. Those whose lives are embedded in the “flesh”, that is, those whose lives are given over to their instincts of greed and self-indulgence, can never be close to God.
Those who are in the Spirit will want to give their whole selves to the higher instincts of truth, love, compassion, sharing and justice. When we are full of that Spirit then we have truly risen with Christ for his life is truly active in us. We are both alive and life-giving. “I live, no, it is not I, but Christ who lives in me.”