Homily for the 5th Sunday of Lent Year “A”, 1 April 2017, on John 11
With just two weeks now until Easter, we have reached the climax of the three long Gospel passages from St. John, read successively on the third, fourth and fifth Sundays of Lent. In turn we have heard John’s account of the meeting with the Samaritan woman at the well, the giving of sight to the man born blind, and now the raising of Lazarus. These passages have been selected specifically for the instruction of those preparing for Baptism. According to the Rite of the Christian Initiation of Adults, on each of these Sundays, after the homily, the Rite of Scrutiny takes place. The catechumens are prayed over, anointed and exorcised; then they leave the Church, before the liturgy of the Eucharist begins. Last week they will have received the Creed, formally entrusted to them to be learned. During this coming week they will receive the Lord’s Prayer. They will be able to recite in public for the first time at the Paschal Vigil, following their Baptism.
Why are we preparing to celebrate Easter? Why are we Christians? Why are we here now? Because we believe that Jesus gives us life. We believe we have that life already by our Baptism. Delivery from bondage to sin and the devil is already a form of Resurrection from the dead. In today’s Gospel the Apostle Thomas says: Let us go and die with him. But by our baptism we believe we’ve already died with Jesus (cf. Jn 11:16; Rm 6:8; 2 Tm 2:11). Even now we live with his own life, filled by his own Holy Spirit. We know that the end of that will be the fullness of life with God in heaven for all eternity.
The raising of Lazarus is a revelation, a sign, a pledge of the power Jesus has over death. This past week we’ve heard Chapter 5 of St. John’s Gospel read at Mass. There Jesus said: As the Father raises the dead and gives them life, so also the Son gives life to whom he will... Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears my word and believes him who sent me, has eternal life; he does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life (21,24).
In today’s Gospel, St. John chooses to convey this life-giving doctrine, this wonderful good news of salvation, by means of a long narrative, a drama. And the focus of the drama is not so much on Lazarus, as on the relationship Jesus has with his two sisters, Martha and Mary. We know these women already from St. Luke’s Gospel: Martha typically active; Mary apparently passive, yet the one whose love of Jesus is deeper, and who follows him more closely. Jesus loves them both, as he loves Lazarus. Yet, very remarkably, Jesus deliberately allows Lazarus to die. He could have saved him, whether by a visit with a healing touch, or simply by a word from a distance, as he did with the royal official’s son lying sick in Capernaum (4:46). The sisters know that. So as well as enduring grief at the loss of their brother, they have also to endure bafflement at Jesus’ apparent neglect. Why did he not act? How could he allow Lazarus to die, and them to suffer such sorrow and loss? What can he possibly be up to? Do they really know him as they thought they did?
Jesus tells them why he allowed Lazarus to die: so that you will see the glory of God (11:41). We see God’s glory shine out when death itself, and not just disease, is overcome, and reversed. God’s glory is revealed when he does not merely shield us from sadness, but reaches into the depths of despair, and turns it into perfect joy. Seeing God’s glory shine out now in the power Jesus has over death, we will be prepared to see it even more clearly, when out of love for his Father and for us, Jesus is raised up on the Cross (1:14; 3:14 etc).
To understand this, it’s necessary for us to live, in the words of St. Paul, not according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit (Rm 8:8). Our version of today’s second reading translates “living according to the flesh” as being “interested in unspiritual things”. An example of that would be to have the goals of our life bounded by things like prosperity, health, wealth, success. These things are not bad in themselves. But the gifts Jesus came to give us are infinitely better, more worth while, more enduring. In the first place, Jesus gives us himself. Then, with himself, all that follows: the life of grace; freedom from sin; holiness and purity; goodness, and truth; divine wisdom, and divine love; joy without end; eternal life.
Maybe nowadays we need to hear this emphasised rather a lot. Modern Christians can so easily be distracted into thinking that our religion is all about making the world a better place; or all about morality, or therapy, or inner peace. These things are important, and we can agree about them with anyone of good will. But our life is finally directed not towards them, but towards Jesus; and towards our eternal union with the Father through the Son in the Holy Spirit.
In today’s Gospel we see Jesus at the tomb of his friend: distressed, anguished, weeping. This a sign and foretaste of his own passion, which is clearly imaged in the details of the burial cave with a stone over its entrance, and in the burial cloths of Lazarus. The reaction of Jesus shows also that suffering and death come not from God, but from sin. God’s response to our suffering is seen in Jesus: in his tears, his prayer, his grief, and in the horror of his own death. So the tears of Jesus are a revelation, and also a permission. For Jesus came to us as a lover, rather than as a philosopher. So our religion is not at all the same as Stoicism, or Buddhism. We are not asked to despise strong emotion, whether or joy or of grief. On the contrary. A Christian should not be able to pass over beautiful things, or horrible things, unmoved and indifferent. We are supposed to feel pain, and to hate it. We are also allowed to be baffled at God, and even angry with him, when dreadful things occur. All that is summed up for us next Sunday, in the Passion of Jesus. But then we have the Sunday that follows: the centre of our year, and of our life; the focus of our hope, and our joy; the ultimate answer to all life’s questions: which is the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.