Fifth Sunday of Lent, Year A - April 2nd, 2017Ezekiel’s dramatic vision and ours
The historical background of today’s first reading from Ezekiel 37:12-14 is the great vision of the valley of the dry bones, one of the most spectacular panoramas in the whole of biblical literature. It dates back to the early sixth century BC when the hand of God came upon Ezekiel while the Jews were in captivity in Babylon. For about 150 years the political fortunes of the Jewish people had been in decline. The turning point came in 587 BC with the final catastrophic defeat and the beginning of the great exile for the Jewish people who were in deep despair, powerless over the situation which befell them. It is against this bleak background that Ezekiel’s dramatic vision unfolds – where the dead withered into whitened skeletons as the birds of prey had long finished destroying their flesh. What an incredible battlefield of unburied corpses! What a stench of death and decay!
The reluctant prophet Ezekiel was commanded by God to prophesy to these bones, to revive them. With the help of a massive earthquake, the bones rushed together with an eerie clamour. Sinews knitted them together, flesh and then skin clothed the corpses. The breath, “ruah,” Spirit of God came from the four extremities of the earth, as the limp bodies came “to life again and stood up on their feet, a great and immense army” (Ezekiel 37:10). Whereas we now understand this incident as a pre-figuration of the resurrection of the dead, the Jews of Ezekiel’s time did not believe in such a conception of the afterlife. For them the immense resurrected army represented all the Jewish people, those from the northern kingdom who had previously fled to Assyria; those at home and those in exile in Babylon. They were to be reconstituted as a people in their own land and they would know that the one true God alone had done this.
Through the centuries, Christians have proclaimed this text during the liturgy of Easter night as we welcome new members into the Church. Ezekiel’s powerful words offer a stirring image of the God of Israel’s regenerative, restorative, renewing power for this life and for all eternity. Through the centuries, believers in the God and father of Abraham, Isaac, and Jesus have taken heart in Ezekiel’s vision, because we believe it to be our story as well. We believe in the power of God’s forgiveness, the capacity of Christ, and the Catholic tradition to revive us and bring us to life even when all around us seems to announce night, darkness, death, dissolution, and despair.
Christian life is a constant challenge
Through St. Paul’s writing to the community in Rome (8:8-11), we learn that through the Cross of Jesus Christ, God broke the power of sin and pronounced sentence on it (8:3). Christians still retain the flesh, but it is alien to their new being, which is life in the spirit, namely the new self, governed by the Holy Spirit. Under the direction of the Holy Spirit, Christians are able to fulfil the divine will that formerly found expression in the law (8:4). The same Spirit who enlivens Christians for holiness will also resurrect their bodies at the last day (8:11). Christian life is therefore the experience of a constant challenge to put to death the evil deeds of the body through the life of the spirit (8:13).
Jesus’ gift of life leads to his own death
Today’s pathos-filled Gospel story – the raising of Lazarus – is the longest continuous narrative in John’s Gospel (11:1-44) outside of the passion account and the climax of the signs of Jesus. The story is situated shortly before Jesus is captured, tried, and crucified. It is the event that most directly results in his condemnation by those seeking to kill him. Johannine irony is found in the fact that Jesus’ gift of life leads to his own death. Jesus was aware of the illness of his friend Lazarus and yet did not go to work a healing. In fact, he delayed for several days after Lazarus’ death, meanwhile giving his disciples lessons along the way about the light – lessons incomprehensible in the face of grave illness and death but understandable in the light shed by Lazarus’ and Christ’s resurrections.
Jesus declared to Martha: “I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, he will live; whoever lives and believes in me, will never die” (11:25-26). Then he adds: “Do you believe this?” (11:26) The Lord urges us to respond just as Martha did, “Yes, Lord! We too believe, despite our doubts and our darkness; we believe in you, because you have the words of eternal life; we want to believe in you, who gives us a trustworthy hope of life beyond life, of authentic and full life in your kingdom of light and peace.”
Lord, if only you had been here…
How often have we, like Martha and Mary, blurted out those same words of pain and despair: “Lord, if only you had been here, my brother (or sister or mother or father or friend) would not have died” (11:32). And yet today’s emotionally-charged story from John’s Gospel tells us what kind of God we have: a God who “groaned in spirit and was troubled” (11:33). The Greek word used here to describe Jesus’ gut sentiment tells us that he became perturbed. It is a startling Greek phrase that literally means: “He snorted in spirit,” perhaps in anger at the presence of evil (death). We witness the Lord weeping at the tomb of his friend Lazarus; a Saviour deeply moved at the commotion and grief of so many friends of Martha, Mary, and Lazarus. The shortest line in the whole bible is found in this Gospel story: “Jesus wept” (11:35).
Jesus reveals to us God who is one with us in suffering, grief and death: a God who weeps with us. God doesn’t intervene to prevent the tragedies and sufferings of life. If we had a god who simply swooped down as some “deus ex machina” to prevent human tragedy and sinfulness, then religion and faith would simply be reduced to some form of magic or fate, and we would be helpless pawns on the chessboard of some whimsical deity. Where is God in the midst of human tragedies? God is there in the midst of it all, weeping. This is our God who stands in deep, human solidarity with us, and through the glory of the Incarnation, embraces fully our human condition.
Death of the heart and spirit
The story of the raising of Lazarus also speaks to us about another kind of death. We can be dead, even before we die, while we are still in this life. This is not only the death of the soul caused by sin but rather a death that manifests itself through the absence of energy, hope, and a desire to fight and to continue to life. We often refer to this reality as death of the heart or spiritual death. There are many people who are enchained in this kind of death every day because of the sad and tragic circumstances of their lives. Who can possibly reverse this situation and revive us, stir us back to life, free us from the tombs that enchain us? Who can perform the spiritual cardio-pulmonary resuscitation that will reverse such desperate situations?
For certain afflictions, there exists no human remedy. Words of encouragement often fail to effect any change. Many times people in these situations are not able to do anything, not even pray. They are like Lazarus in the tomb. They need others to do something for them. Jesus once spoke these words to his disciples: “Heal the sick, raise the dead” (Matthew 10:8). Among the corporal works of mercy – feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, sheltering the homeless, visiting the sick, visiting prisoners – the last one is burying the dead. Today’s Gospel tells us that in addition to this corporal work of mercy, we must also “raise the dead.”
Only the One who has entered death’s realm and engaged death itself in battle can give life to those who have died. John recounts the raising of Lazarus as a sign that transforms tragedy into hope. Lazarus’ illness and death are an occasion for the manifestation of God’s glory. As Christians we do not expect to escape death; but we approach it with faith in the resurrection.
Implications of faith in the resurrection
Referring to the story of Lazarus in his 2011 Lenten Message, Pope Emeritus Benedict wrote:
On the fifth Sunday, when the resurrection of Lazarus is proclaimed, we are faced with the ultimate mystery of our existence: “I am the resurrection and the life… Do you believe this?” (Jn 11:25-26). For the Christian community, it is the moment to place with sincerity – together with Martha – all of our hopes in Jesus of Nazareth: “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, the one who was to come into this world” (Jn 11:27).
Communion with Christ in this life prepares us to overcome the barrier of death, so that we may live eternally with him. Faith in the resurrection of the dead and hope in eternal life open our eyes to the ultimate meaning of our existence: God created men and women for resurrection and life, and this truth gives an authentic and definitive meaning to human history, to the personal and social lives of men and women, to culture, politics and the economy. Without the light of faith, the entire universe finishes shut within a tomb devoid of any future, any hope.
Living Lent this week
1. Immediately before his own death and resurrection Jesus proclaims the words that form the very heart of today’s Gospel story: “I am the resurrection and the life” (John 11:25). The fourth century Bishop Gregory of Nazianzus (328-389) spoke about the miracle in Bethany that prefigured Jesus’ own death and resurrection. Meditate on these moving words of St. Gregory:
He prays, but he hears prayer. He weeps, but he puts an end to tears.
He asks where Lazarus was laid, for he was a human being; and he raises Lazarus, for He is God. As a sheep he is led to the slaughter
but he is the Shepherd of Israel and now of the whole world.
He is bruised and wounded,
but he heals every disease and every infirmity.
He is lifted up and nailed to the tree,
but by the tree of life he restores us...
He lays down his life,
but he has the power to take it again;
and the veil is rent, for the mysterious doors of heaven are opened;
the rocks are cleft, the dead rise.
He dies, but he gives life, and his death destroys death.
He is buried, but he rises again.
2. Look around you and discover one or two people who are in the throes of death, especially death of the heart and spirit, people who have lost the will and desire to live because of what has befallen them. Reach out to them, and with your words, revive their spirit, quicken their souls, unbind them, and set them free.
[The readings for this Sunday are: Ezekiel 37:12-14; Romans 8:8-11; and John 11:1-45.]
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