Fifth Sunday of Lent

Lazarus Unbound

 Fr. Raymond Lafontaine, E.V.  March 29, 2020

Brothers and Sisters in Christ:

This past Friday at 1 PM, I turned on my television to watch Pope Francis deliver an extraordinary “Urbi et Orbi” message and blessing.  From the Latin meaning “to the City of Rome, and to the World”, this blessing, usually given only at Christmas and Easter, was being imparted to a world reeling at the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.  It was a very moving and powerful scene: our 83-year old spiritual father, walking in the rain, all alone, limping slightly, across a completely empty St. Peter’s Square, in order to pray for the church and the world in these troubled times, and to call upon God for his blessing, protection and healing. 

After Mark’s Gospel account of Jesus calming the storm was proclaimed, the Holy Father acknowledged the darkness and confusion in which our world now finds itself: 

“We find ourselves afraid and lost. Like the disciples, we have been caught off guard by an unexpected, turbulent storm. We have realized that we are on the same boat, all of us fragile and disoriented, but at the same time important and needed, all of us called to row together, each of us called to comfort one another. All of us are on this boat … all of us!  And we have realized that we cannot go on thinking only of ourselves; only together can we do this.”

Then, Francis reminds us of the thought that easily floods our minds, when danger threatens or tragedy strikes: “Lord, do you not care if we perish?”  The drama of our times, the Pope suggests, is not so much that we no longer believe in the existence of God, but that we have stopped trusting in God’s personal care for each of us, stopped believing in his all-englobing love for all his creation.  And as we call upon him loudly “Wake up, Lord!”, Jesus asks us the same question he asked his disciples after calming the storm:  “Why are you afraid?  Have you no faith?”

This is the dynamic at work in our Gospel today – the masterful telling of the story of the raising of Lazarus. Whereas in the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke), Jesus performs a large number of miracles and wondrous deeds as he moves from village to village – healings and exorcisms, feeding the multitudes and walking on water, even raising the dead – in John, they are much fewer, and referred to not as “miracles” but  as “signs”.  Their goal is not to amaze or impress, but to reveal who Jesus is: the Bridegroom, the Healer, the Bread of Life, the Good Shepherd – and in the readings of these past three Sundays, as Living Water, as the Light of the World, and today, as the Resurrection and the Life. 

Let’s examine this powerful text more deeply.  Martha, Mary, and their brother Lazarus are introduced to us as close friends of Jesus. They are the first people in John’s Gospel to be named specifically as “loved by Jesus.”  We have already met the two sisters in Luke’s Gospel: Martha, the original “Martha Stewart” personality, the busy, practical sister who has trouble sitting still when Jesus visits; Mary, the quiet one who shows hospitality by sitting at Jesus’ feet and drinking in every word.  Luke does not even mention Lazarus; many commentators have suggested that this could indicate that Lazarus was disabled in some way, that Martha and Mary had not married in order to stay home and take care of him.  In any event, they were Jesus’ dear friends and he cared deeply for them.  

In any event, we meet here the same Martha as a woman of great practicality, but also of courage and faith: her confession of Jesus as the Christ, as God’s own Son, echoes Peter’s similar profession of faith in Matthew’s Gospel.  We can take inspiration today from her simple, strong profession of faith in Jesus and his power to give life: even in her great grief at having lost a beloved brother, she accepts Jesus as the “resurrection and the life.”  When we confront the painful reality of the death of a loved one, Martha’s witness of faith can bring us strength and hope.

Then, there is Mary.  If Martha is more of a head person, Mary is close to her heart.  She rushes to Jesus when he asks to see her; she falls at his feet and shares her pain with Jesus.  And in return, Jesus shares his own grief and sorrow.  It is perhaps the shortest verse in the entire New Testament, two words: “Jesus wept.”  But those two words speak volumes.

Indeed, Jesus shows many emotions in today's gospel. He is “greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved”; he is sad, and he weeps; he is upset at the lack of faith of the crowds.  John has no difficulty in showing us at once Jesus’ divinity – including his power over life and death – and at the same time his profound humanity, his compassion, his capacity for human love and friendship.  The same Jesus who wept for his friend Lazarus weeps also in solidarity with all those who have lost beloved family members and friends in this time of pandemic.  And he invites us to do the same: not to be indifferent to the suffering of our brothers and sisters, not to turn away from or suppress their pain, but to embrace it with them.  In the words of Pope Francis,

“The Lord invites us in the midst of our tempest to reawaken and put into practice that solidarity and hope which can give strength, support and meaning to these hours when everything around us seems to be floundering.  The Lord comes to reawaken and revive our Easter faith.”

What our world is going through right now is a kind of death.  People are dying; but even more profoundly, the sense that any of us, any nation – no matter how rich, privileged, or remote – is immune from this threat which is spreading across our world. This is hard to accept. Death is shocking.  Death makes us angry and sad.  It has the power to bind us – like Lazarus constricted within his shroud, like Martha and Mary bound up in their grief.  And whether death comes suddenly, or after a long, lingering illness, it always leaves us reeling, asking “why”.

Where is Jesus when we need him? He does not always come when we want him, or expect him. When Jesus learned that Lazarus was sick, he waited two days before setting out for Bethany; by the time he got there, Lazarus had been dead four days.  Why? Like Martha and Mary, we are tempted to ask, “Lord, where were you when we needed you?”  But in a sense, that’s the wrong question.  We can ask instead, “Lord, help me to meet you, in this painful place.  Help me to choose hope over despair, generosity over selfishness, solidarity over self-protection, life over death.”   

The Christian message is that Jesus is with those we suffer.  And that in his Cross lies the promise of our Resurrection.  Next week is Palm Sunday, the beginning of Holy Week.  After being brought back to life by Jesus, Lazarus will eventually grow old, and die.  The full gift of Resurrection comes only after Jesus’ own death, when he was raised up by his Father, triumphant over death itself.  Jesus is “the Resurrection and the Life”, and in his rising, we too rise to everlasting life. The same question Jesus asks Martha in the Gospel, he asks of us: “Do you believe this?”

Do we believe this?  The answer we give is vital.  For every human society has pondered the question of “why we have to die,” seeking answers in religion, or mythology, or philosophy, or science. There is no simple answer to that kind of question.  But if we reframe the “why” question and make it more personal, our reflection shifts.  Instead of asking “why do people have to die?”, I start asking “Why was I born? Why did God make me? What is the purpose of my life?”

Our old catechisms gave us a summary answer to this question: “God made me to know, love, and serve him in this world, and to be happy with him forever in the next.”  When we know this not just as a formulaic response to a catechism question, but from a deep place within our heart, then death is no longer something to be feared.  We can “welcome death as a friend.”  For we know then that death does not have the final word.   We welcome the promise of eternal life, a peace that is beyond human understanding.  Jesus wants to give us this life: he came, in fact, “that we might have life in abundance.” He wants to set us free not only from COVID-19, but from all that binds us: our fear, our complacency, our self-sufficiency, our brokenness.  Like Lazarus, he wants to “unbind us, and let us go free.”

Most of us are feeling in these days the pain that comes when we are deprived of the Lord’s real presence in the gift of the Eucharist.  But Jesus wants also to meet us in his life-giving Word, in quiet moments of prayer and reflection, in random acts of kindness to our neighours, and in the loving choices which constitute the “sacrament of everyday life”.  He stands at the door of our “tombs”, and calls out to us: “Come forth!”

Pope Francis concludes his message to “the City and the World” with an invitation to hope, in the midst of the tempest in which we find ourselves.  May his words inspire and guide us on our journey:

“We have an anchor: by his cross we have been saved. We have a rudder: by his cross we have been redeemed. We have a hope: by his cross we have been healed and embraced so that nothing and no one can separate us from his redeeming love. In the midst of isolation when we experience the loss of so many things, let us listen to the proclamation that saves us: he is risen and is living by our side.

Embracing his cross means finding the courage to embrace all the hardships of the present time. It means finding the courage to create spaces where everyone can recognize that they are called, and to allow new forms of hospitality, fraternity and solidarity. Embracing the Lord in order to embrace hope: that is the strength of faith, which frees us from fear and gives us hope.

From this colonnade that embraces Rome and the whole world, may God’s blessing come down upon you as a consoling embrace. Lord, may you bless the world, give health to our bodies and comfort our hearts. You ask us not to be afraid. Yet our faith is weak and we are fearful. But you, Lord, will not leave us at the mercy of the storm. Tell us again: “Do not be afraid”.  Help us, with St. Peter, “to cast all our anxieties onto you, because you care about us”.