The altar crucifixes, statues, and other sacred images are all veiled in purple today. Until relatively recently, this 5th Sunday of Lent was called “Passion Sunday.” With just 2 weeks to go till Easter, today marks the beginning of Lent’s final phase, as the Church focuses our attention more and more on the final events of Jesus’ earthly life – and why those events matter for us today.
The gospel we just heard recounts the last miracle of Jesus’ public life – miracles which John’s Gospel calls “signs” because they serve to reveal Jesus and invite us to respond to him with faith. But the raising of Lazarus from the dead also had as its consequence the authorities’ decision to have Jesus executed. So life and death are mixed together in this story – as the same event that suggests the new life Jesus makes possible for us also results (on the part of his enemies) in a decision for death. The apostle Thomas’s somewhat surprising exclamation, “Let us also go to die with him,” is actually addressed to us, as the Church invites us to accompany Jesus in his final journey.
Meanwhile, what starts out as a genuinely touching and tender story about the human friendship between Jesus and Lazarus - and the dramatic extension of Lazarus’ earthly lifespan - becomes a story about our relationship now with the Risen Christ and his offer to us of a resurrection similar to his own.
The friendship shared by Jesus and Lazarus extended also to his sisters, Martha and Mary, who first sent him the news of their brother’s serious sickness. Strangely, however, he initially seemed to ignore their message, thus setting the stage for his greatest miracle, but also for a whole series of conversations, the most important (and familiar) of which was the one with Martha, which for so many centuries has been read at Catholic funerals.
Listening in on their conversation today, we hear Jesus’ one-sentence answer to Martha, Your brother will rise, (and her rather matter-of-fact response) rather matter-of-factly ourselves. But there was nothing matter-of-fact about it! Whatever else may happen to people when they died, most people in the ancient world knew for a fact that dead people definitely do not rise back to life from the dead. Among Jews, however, there was at least one group – the Pharisees (whose beliefs Martha apparently shared) – who held the distinctly contrarian view that, whatever else may happen to people when they died, a general resurrection of the dead would follow – in the future, on the last day.
Jesus’ surprising answer to Martha, I am the resurrection and the life, was intended to hint ahead to his own unique experience of resurrection – something neither Martha nor anyone else would have understood at the time, since no one was then expecting the Messiah (or, for that matter anyone else) to rise from the dead, all by himself, ahead of everyone else.
We, however, can follow the story backwards, so to speak. We start from the fundamental fact that Jesus Christ has risen from the dead, and then we understand his death - and his whole life - in the light of that.
Lazarus was brought back from the tomb to resume his ordinary life (and then to die again eventually). Jesus, however, would rise out of his tomb in order to live forever. Bystanders had to take away the stone for Lazarus to be able to come out, and Lazarus himself emerged bound hand and foot - as we too tend to go through life bound by burdens big and small, our own version of being tied with burial bands. In Jesus’ case, however, no one would either have to help him to come out or have to untie him. The resurrected life of the Risen Christ is something altogether new and different and means death’s decisive defeat.
Hence the threat that this subversive belief in the resurrection posed – and still poses – to those who see only the familiar world we now know.
John’s Gospel goes on to tell how, as a result of this event, the political leadership decided to kill Jesus - and to eliminate the evidence by killing Lazarus too. It’s like that scene in Oscar Wilde’s play Salome, when Herod, hearing that Jesus has been raising people from the dead, declares: “I forbid him to do that. I allow no man to raise the dead.”
Martha’s invitation to Mary, The teacher is here and is asking for you, is addressed to all of us, who are in turn invited to address it to one another - and to this world which so desperately needs to hear it, but which increasingly seems somewhat dead to hope.
After experiencing what Jesus had done for Lazarus, many believed in him, but others went to report him to his enemies. Jesus’ own resurrection, of which this was meant as a hint, likewise challenges each of us to respond - one way or the other.
Homily for the 5th Sunday of Lent, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, April 6, 2014.