5th Sunday of Lent (Fr. Francis)
As Vice President, George H.W. Bush represented the U.S. at the funeral of former Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev (November 1982). Bush was deeply moved by a silent protest carried out by Brezhnev’s widow. She stood motionless by the coffin until seconds before it was closed. Then, just as the soldiers touched the lid, Brezhnev’s wife performed an act of great courage and hope, a gesture that must surely rank as one of the most profound acts of civil disobedience ever committed in Communist Russia: she made the sign of the cross on her husband’s chest. There in the citadel of secular, atheistic power, the wife of the man who had run it all made a gesture suggesting that her husband had been wrong. She hoped that there was another way of life – a life best represented by Jesus who died on the cross, and that this same Jesus might yet have mercy on her husband and raise him up on the Day of the Judgment. In today’s Gospel, Martha expresses her Faith in Jesus’ assurance of the resurrection of her brother Lazarus.
Of all the miracles Jesus did, the raising of Lazarus ranks as the most astonishing to the people of his time. Traditional Jewish belief had it that the soul of a dead person somehow remains with the body for three days. After three days the soul departs finally from the body never to return, and that is when corruption sets in. When Martha objects to the opening of the tomb and says, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days” (John 11:39), she is expressing the common view that this is now a hopeless situation. Is that why Jesus delayed coming to the funeral, to let the situation become “impossible” before acting on it? G.K. Chesterton once said, “Hope means hoping when things are hopeless, or it is no virtue at all.” In traditional Jewish mentality bringing back to life a person who is already four days dead and decaying is as unthinkable as the prophet Ezekiel’s vision in which the grey, dry bones of the dead are miraculously restored to life.
For the early Christians the story of the raising of Lazarus was more than a pointer to the resurrection of Jesus. Jesus rose on the third day; his body never saw corruption. For them this miracle is a challenge to never give up hope even in the hopeless situations in which they found themselves as individuals, as a church or as a nation. It is never too late for God to revive and revitalize a person, a church or a nation. But first we must learn to cooperate with God.
How can we cooperate with God so as to experience God’s resurrection power in our lives and in our world? Well, everyone knows the answer already: faith. But that is not the point that John makes in this story. In fact there is no one in the story, not even Mary or Martha, who believed that Jesus could bring Lazarus back to life after four days dead. No one expected him to do it, so expectant faith is not the emphasis here. Rather the emphasis in the story on how we cooperate with a miracle-working God is placed on practical obedience and doing God’s will.
To effect the miracle, Jesus issues three commands and all of them are obeyed to the letter. That is how the miracle happens. First, “Jesus said, ‘Roll away the stone.’ … So they rolled away the stone” (verses 39-41). Did the people understand why they should do this heavy work of rolling away the tombstone to expose a stinking corpse? You bet they didn’t. But it was their faith in Jesus expressing itself not through intellectual agreement with Jesus but through practical agreement with him, through obedience. Why didn’t Jesus command the stone to roll away all by itself, without bothering the people? We don’t quite know. All we know is that divine power seems always to be activated by human cooperation and stifled by non-cooperation. As C.S. Lewis said, “God seems to do nothing of Himself which He can possibly delegate to His creatures.” God will not do by a miracle what we can do by obedience.
The second command Jesus gives is directed to the dead man: “‘Lazarus, come out!’ and the dead man came out” (verses 43-44). We do not know the details of what transpired in the tomb. All we know is that Jesus’ word of command is followed by immediate obedience. Lazarus gropes his way out of the dark tomb even with his hands and feet tied up in bandages, and his face all wrapped up. Even a man rotting away in the tomb can still do something to help himself.
The third command again is addressed to the people, “Unbind him, and let him go” (verse 44). Even though Lazarus could stumble himself out of the tomb, there was no way he could unbind himself. He needs the community to do that for him. By unbinding Lazarus and setting him free from the death bands the community is accepting Lazarus back as one of them.
Many Christian individuals and communities today have fallen victim to the death of sin. Many are already in the tomb of hopelessness and decay, in the bondage of sinful habits and attitudes. Nothing short of a miracle can bring us back to life in Christ. Jesus is ready for the miracle. He himself said, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). Are we ready to cooperate with him for the miracle. Are we ready to roll away the stone that stands between us and the light of Christ’s face? Are we ready to take the first step to come out of the place of death? Are we ready to unbind (i.e. forgive) one another and let them go free? These are the various ways we cooperate with God in the miracle of bringing us back to life and reviving us as individuals, as a church, and a nation.
Roll away the stone, unbind him and let him go. We often bind ourselves with chains of addiction to alcohol, drugs, sexual deviations, slander, gossip, envy, prejudices, hatred, and uncontrollable anger, and bury ourselves in the tombs of despair. Sometimes we are in the tomb of selfishness, filled with negative feelings such as worry, fear, resentment, hatred, and guilt. If we want Jesus to visit our dark dungeons of sin, despair and unhappiness, let us ask Jesus during this Holy Mass to bring the light and the power of the Holy Spirit into our private lives and liberate us from our tombs. Are there times when we refuse to let God enter into our wallets, fearing that faithful tithing will endanger our savings? When we receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation, Jesus will call our name and command, “Come out, Mary”, “Come out, Joe”! This is Good news for all of us: “Lazarus, come out!” This can be the beginning of a new life.
Fr A. Francis HGN