The Raising of Lazarus
Homily for the Fifth Sunday of Lent (Year A readings). Ez 37:12-14; Ps 129; Rom 8:8-11; Jn 11:1-45
Since the accounts of Jesus' miracles are so familiar to us from the readings at Mass, there is a slight risk that we hear the sounds of the words without thinking about or reacting to the extraordinary events that are being described. Awe and wonder are especially fitting reactions for the miracle described in today's Gospel: the raising of Lazarus. Many of us have experienced the death of someone we love. What would it be like to see someone we love die, have the funeral, bury him, and, four days later, to see him walk out of the tomb? “The dead man came out, tied hand and foot with burial bands, and his face was wrapped in a cloth.” The experience would be both wonderful and, probably, terrifying. Yet after the shock, we would experience joy beyond words in being reunited with the dead person. Indeed, John's Gospel a little further on describes Lazarus being at supper in Bethany, enjoying a meal with his family. Meanwhile Mary, his sister, anoints the feet of Jesus with costly ointment and wipes it away with her hair.
Besides bringing joy to this family, the raising of Lazarus also brings all of us hope. All of our lives are lived in the valley of the shadow of death, which no human power can prevent or postpone for ever. Yet, by raising Lazarus, Jesus has shown us, first, that our souls, with our unique identities, do not cease to exist when we die, for the man Lazarus who died is the same man who was raised from the dead four days later and enjoyed a meal with his family. Second, Jesus has shown us his power over the physical death of our bodies and given us a foretaste of the final, general resurrection. As Jesus says in another passage, “For the hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come forth, those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of judgment.” (John 5:28-29). So this miracle brings us the hope that not only our souls continue after death, but also that our bodies will be raised imperishable at the end of time. Finally, and most important however, is that our friendship with Jesus Christ and with all the Church does not cease with death. There is a phrase in today's Gospel that is very easy to miss when Jesus says of Lazarus, "Our friend Lazarus is resting. I am going to wake him." For the Jewish people, the worst consequence of death was not the loss of life, liberty or possessions. The worst consequence of death was the fear that their union with God would be lost. As Psalm 88 laments, “I am ... like one forsaken among the dead, like the slain that lie in the grave, like those whom thou dost remember no more, for they are cut off from thy hand.” Similarly, Psalm 115 warns, “The dead do not praise the LORD.” It was the breaking of their union with God, of being cut off from God that the Jews feared most about death. It is this fear that Jesus addresses in this Gospel when he speaks of the dead Lazarus as, "Our friend," and when he says, “Everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” As you may have noticed, the English translation of these words does not make sense. Most people who live and believe in Jesus Christ either have died or will die, like everyone else. Jesus, however, is not talking about ‘life’ in the conventional sense. The original Greek word in the Gospel is different, but since we have no matching word in English, the difference is lost in translation. The word Jesus uses for ‘life’ is the same word he uses for the Eucharist when he says, “I am the bread of ‘life’” (John 6:35). St. Paul uses the same word in today's Second Reading when he says, “The one who raised Christ from the dead will give ‘life’ to your mortal bodies also, through his Spirit dwelling in you.” By ‘life’, Jesus therefore means the life of grace, the life given by the Trinity, a sharing in the life of God Himself. So when Jesus says “everyone who lives and believes in me will never die,” at least part of what he means is this: if, in this present existence, we share the life of God through the sacraments, and if we die in a state of grace, we shall not lose this divine life. Death will not break our union with God. If we become friends of God in this life, in the brief time that is given to us, this friendship will endure beyond death. And one day God will also raise our mortal bodies in glory.
For those who will be entering the Church this Easter, you are heirs to this hope, the promise of a friendship with God that will last forever. Yet I must also add a brief note of warning. When Jesus raises Lazarus, he travels to Judea at the risk of his life, since he has been threatened with being stoned to death. Indeed, Thomas acknowledges this risk when he says, "Let us go too, and die with him." Furthermore, soon after this extraordinary miracle, when a dead man has been seen to come forth at the voice of the Son of God, Jesus Christ was nevertheless rejected and executed on a cross. Indeed, those who plotted to kill him also considered killing Lazarus as well. The raising of Lazarus, like all the life-giving miracles of Jesus, is connected with his own sacrifice on Calvary. For those entering the Church, you will be entering into a new and supernatural life, but there is also a certain death as well. You will leave the old way of life behind and you may also experience of certain separation or even alienation from those who have chosen a different path. In the nineteenth century, John Henry Newman had to abandon his Oxford fellowship when he converted; he lost many of his friends and was ostracised by members of his family. Today, there are at least nine countries in the world where you might face the death penalty for conversion, but even in this country there may be a subtle ostacisation, division or persecution. Jesus Christ does indeed share with us his life, but the greater and more mature gift in many ways is that he also shares with us his death, the sacrifice that follows from participating a little in the way in which he loves. May God protect you and give you courage when these trials come, that you may win through not only to conversion this Easter, but also, one day, to the eternal communion of saints in heaven.
© Fr Andrew Pinsent. Academic Web Site.