5 Sunday of Lent (A)

Readings: Ezekiel 37:12-14; Romans 8:8-11; John 11:1-45

ANOTHER GREAT STORY from John for our Lenten reading today, which links up with the stories of the woman at the well and the man born blind of the previous two Sundays.  They are all focusing especially on the baptisms which will take place during the Easter Vigil in the context of the Paschal Mystery.

The story of the raising of Lazarus is on several levels at the same time.  The underlying theme is life and death and life again.  The unending cycle which is a feature of all living things human, animal or vegetable.

An occasion for God’s glory

The story opens with the announcement that Lazarus, the brother of Martha and Mary, is ill.  Jesus’ immediate response is to say that this illness will not result in the death of Lazarus but that it will be an occasion for God’s glory to be revealed to all and for glory to come to his Son also.  And, though we are told he had a deep love for Lazarus and his sisters, Jesus remained in the same place for another two days.  Eventually he announced to his disciples that they were going to Judea, the province where Jerusalem and Bethany, the home of Lazarus, were situated.

The disciples immediately react in great alarm.  The place is very dangerous for Jesus – and for them.  They want to know if Jesus is intending to go back to a place where recently people had wanted to stone him.  Jesus’ response is that the daytime is the time for getting things done; when the night comes nothing can be done.  “During the night one stumbles, because there is no light.”  Right now, is, in Jesus’ view, a time of light.  There is a time for doing things and they must be done even if there is risk and danger.  Up to this, Jesus has been avoiding unnecessarily provoking those hostile to him (“My time has not yet come”) but now the time is fast approaching for the final confrontation.  It is not to be avoided.

Lazarus sleeping

Jesus now tells his disciples that Lazarus has fallen asleep and Jesus will go to wake him.  Taking his words literally, as they often do, the disciples at once see that the visit will not be necessary.  If he is just asleep, then he will get well soon.  Then Jesus speaks the truth unambiguously: “Lazarus has died.”  And he is glad that this has happened because it will be an occasion for them to increase their belief in Jesus.

Right now, though, they are very afraid.  Then Thomas the Twin, who comes across as someone always ready to speak his mind, “Let’s all go with the Master and die with him!”  Did he really mean this or was it just a kind of bravado?  If we were unkind, we could ask where was Thomas as Jesus hung on the cross?  In any case, it is what we are all ultimately called to do: To go with the Master and suffer and die – and rise with him.

Dead four days

By the time Jesus arrived in Bethany, Lazarus had already been dead four days.  When the news reached the house that Jesus was entering the village, Martha rushed out to meet him while Mary remained grieving in the house.  They are behaving very much in the character that Luke gives us: Martha the active one, Mary the contemplative one.  On meeting Jesus Martha says: “If you had been here, Lord, my brother would not have died.”  She has great faith in Jesus whom she addresses by the post-resurrection title of ‘Lord’.  She is aware of his healing powers but does not dare to go beyond that.

Then follows a beautiful dialogue which we often use in funeral Masses.  “Your brother will rise to life,” says Jesus.  “Yes, I know that he will rise again on the last day,” replies Martha, reflecting the fairly recent Jewish belief of life after death.  “I AM the Resurrection and the Life” Jesus tells her.  This is the core statement of the whole story and is one of the seven great ‘I AM’ statements in John’s gospel.  And Jesus continues to clarify his meaning: “Whoever believes in me will live, even though he dies;  and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.”

In saying this Jesus is not only affirming that life goes beyond the grave but also that the life he gives begins here and now for all those who accept and totally assimilate his Way.  It is a seamless robe that knows no end and for which physical death is a transition and not an end.

Martha is asked if she believes this and she responds magnificently: “Yes, Lord!  I do believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who was to come into the world.”  Here is the great confession which, in the Synoptics is made by Peter in the name of his fellow-disciples, but here is made by a woman.  It is to be linked with the revelations that Jesus makes of himself to another woman, the Samaritan woman by the well and the blind beggar, whose stories we heard over the past two Sundays.

The Master calls

Martha now goes back to the house to fetch her sister.  She summons her with the beautiful words, “The Master is here and is calling for you.”  The Greek verb parestin (parestin), meaning ‘is here’ is linked to the noun parousia (parousia) used to describe the final coming or presence of the Lord.  But for John, the parousia and life without end begin as soon as Christ comes as Lord into our lives.  Mary now rushes out of the house and her fellow-mourners think she is going to visit the tomb of her brother.  When she sees Jesus she says the same thing her sister said: “Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died.”

Jesus weeps

We now see the very human side of Jesus.  Perhaps he is Messiah and Lord of life but he is surrounded by his two friends, Martha and Mary, and all their friends plunged into grief at the death of Lazarus, probably a relatively young man.  We know already that Jesus was very attached to this family.  It is likely that it provided a place of refuge when things got too ‘hot’ in nearby Jerusalem.  When he sees them all weeping he himself “was touched and was deeply moved”.  And, as he walked to the tomb, “he wept”.  The language implies that Jesus, like the others, was sobbing deeply.  “See how much he loved him,” commented some of the bystanders.  There were, of course, the inevitable cynics: “He gave sight to the blind man, didn’t he?  Could he not have kept Lazarus from dying?”  They were jumping the gun and had yet to see the real reason why Lazarus was allowed to die.

God’s glory made visible

Arriving at the tomb, which was a kind of cave built into a rock face, Jesus ordered the stone at the entrance to be removed.  Martha, who still does not realise what is going to take place, warns Jesus that the body after four days in that hot climate will already be decomposing and will smell strongly.  Jesus reminds her of her great statement of belief she had just made.  “Did I not tell you that you would see God’s glory if you believed?”

Now comes the climactic moment.  Jesus says a prayer of thanks to his Father for what is about to happen. It will be an overwhelming sign of God’s presence in Jesus.  With that he ordered Lazarus to come out of the grave.  And Lazarus, still wrapped in the burial clothes and with a cloth covering his face, steps out of the tomb to the astonishment of those standing by.  While they stand there dumbstruck, Jesus tells them, “Untie him and let him free.”  The result of this, says the evangelist, that many of those who had come out to mourn with Martha and Mary began to believe in Jesus.

Parable of the life Christ gives

The whole story can be read as a parable of the meaning of Jesus as Christ and Lord.  The raising of Lazarus is not just the resuscitation of a dead man but is a powerful symbol of the new life that all of us can undergo when we submit to Jesus as Lord and Saviour.  We can rise from the death of sin to a life bathed in the love of God.  Lazarus stepping from the tomb is strongly reminiscent of Paul describing the baptism of the early Christians.  They stood beside the baptismal pool, stripped themselves of all their clothes, went down into the water, symbolising a dying to their past life of sin.  They submerged themselves completely, a symbol of Jesus going down into his own death and bringing our sins with him.  They then came out on the other side as Jesus emerged from the tomb and were clothed in a new white garment to symbolise their new life in Christ.

We can understand how meaningful all this is in the context of the Paschal Mystery where we celebrate the love of God shown for us through the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus.  How meaningful it is in the context of those catechumens who are preparing to receive Baptism at the Easter Vigil and how meaningful it is for our own lives as we prepare to make a fresh start in living out our own Baptism.

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