5th Sunday of Lent (Year A)
First Reading: Ezekiel 37:12-14 Second Reading: Romans 8:8-11 Gospel Reading: John 11:1-45
“I AM THE RESURRECTION AND THE LIFE.”
One day a pastor was called from a children's party at the Sunday school to visit a young woman whose world had collapsed into an acute depression following the death of her husband in an auto accident. She had withdrawn from everyone and shut herself in her bedroom with the blinds pulled, and she didn't communicate with anyone, including her children, because she said they reminded her of her dead husband. The minister left the party in a show of confetti which the children had thrown at him. He brushed it out of his hair and from his coat as he prepared to call on the depressed woman.
When he arrived at the woman's house, he entered her darkened bedroom and told her who he was, but there was no response. He could faintly see her pitiful form lying motionless on the bed. He tried to carry on a conversation with her, but she was unresponsive. He reached out to touch her hand, but it lay lifeless in his. So he just sat with her in the dark silence for a time.
Then he decided to act. He wanted to see the woman face to face, to read Scripture and pray. So he turned on the bedside lamp. The woman blinked and stared at him blankly. As he took out his Testament which he carried in his handkerchief pocket of his jacket, and opened it, confetti fell from it all over the bed. After an anxious and flustered moment, the minister burst into laughter. And that did it. First a smile appeared on the woman's face, and then she broke into quiet laughter. She reached out her hands to the minister in the joy of resurrection. They prayed together and she left her darkness to return to the light.
Today is the 5th Sunday of Lent, and the last but one week of Lent. This will be followed by 'Passion Sunday,' (Palm Sunday) and finally 'the Holy Week' that will reach its peak on 'Easter Sunday.' The central theme of today’s Scripture Readings is the resurrection and the life. The three readings of today fit beautifully together as they tell us of death yielding to a new way of life. Life and death; hope and despair are the key phrases that sum up the message of this Sunday. The prophet Ezekiel in the First Reading urges the exiled Israelite people in Babylon to look beyond the siege and destruction of Jerusalem to a new future, when God’s Spirit will restore their nation. God promises them a new life and they will be filled with the Spirit of God. The prophet Ezekiel offers hope for them who believe in the God of life. In the Gospel Reading of today from St. John we have the story of the raising of Lazarus from the dead, to bring him back to life, symbolizing that “Jesus himself is the resurrection and the life.” This miracle leads us to believe in resurrection and new life which exists in Jesus through the Holy Spirit. St. Paul in the Second Reading reminds the Roman Christians the power of God´s Spirit that will give life to their mortal bodies. He implies that this new life is not something that will start only on the last day, but is taking effect in their lives now. For this reason he encourages them to live now, according to the Spirit.
“I OPEN YOUR GRAVES AND HAVE YOU RISE FROM THEM!”
In the First Reading of today from the Book of Ezekiel, the Prophet Ezekiel gives hope to his countrymen who are in exile in Babylon and are on the brink of despair. They seem dead, their temple is destroyed, their land is wasted, and they find themselves an enslaved people in a foreign land. In this section of the prophecy, the imagery is that of the dead bodies - God opens their graves and makes them rise from the dead. He then says that He will His Spirit in them that they may live. These are the words of promise designed to reassure and comfort the people that God has not abandoned them. Ezekiel is a master of evocative images, and it is clear that the poetry of this passage is meant to be interpreted symbolically in terms of the nation’s ultimate fate.
Now, when God promised to put His Spirit within His people, this was not a reference to the resurrection that awaits every soul on earth. It was a promise to give a new life to the people of Israel. While the Words of God appeared to imply a day of resurrection, in those days, such a belief was only a concept worthy of reflections. For God's mystery concerning death, being buried and rising with Christ had not yet been revealed to mankind.
JESUS RAISES LAZARUS FROM DEATH:
In the Gospel Reading of today from St. John we hear the story of the raising of Lazarus from death. This miracle is the seventh and greatest of the 'signs' that Jesus works in St. John’s gospel. In the raising of Lazarus from death to life, Jesus proves the truth: “I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”
a) “Master, the one you love is ill.”
Lazarus and his two sisters, Mary and Martha, were Jesus' intimate friends. Jesus stayed with them when in Bethany. One day, when Lazarus was sick, the two sisters sent a message to Jesus, “Master, the one you love is ill.” This was not only a simple message; it was also a prayer. For between true friends, no instructions are needed. All that is needed is for one to let the other know his/her situation so he can respond to it the best way he can. Neither does friendship impose; it trusts. That is how it was between Jesus and Lazarus and his sisters. But, Jesus, even after being informed of Lazarus' illness decided to stay another two days longer in the place where he was. This is not because he did not love Lazarus. This delay was essential to the story, so “that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” The longer he stayed, the greater the glory of God would be manifested through the miracle that was to come.
b) “Our friend Lazarus is asleep, but I am going to awaken him.”
Eventually, Jesus announced to his disciples that they were going to Judea, the province where Jerusalem and Bethany, the home of Lazarus, were situated. The disciples immediately show their concern towards Jesus as the place was dangerous for him and people already tried to stone him. Jesus’ response is that of courage saying that the daytime is the time for getting things done; when the night comes nothing can be done. He also tells his disciples that Lazarus has fallen asleep and he will go there to wake him up. But the disciples took it literally. So, a little later he specifies that Lazarus was dead and that it was necessary for the sake of the disciples, to see the divine power. This would provide a perfect opportunity to strengthen the faith of the disciples. The passage also tells us of the loyalty of the disciples expressed in the words of Thomas that they are willing to go with him and die with him.
c) “I am the resurrection and the life.”
Next we learn that when Jesus arrived outside Bethany, Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. When the news reached the house that Jesus was entering the village, Martha rushed out to meet him, while Mary remained grieving in the house. On meeting Jesus Martha says, “If you had been here, Lord, my brother would not have died.” She has great faith in Jesus and is aware of his healing powers but does not dare to go beyond that.
Then follows a beautiful dialogue which we often use in funeral Masses. “Your brother will rise to life,” says Jesus. “Yes, I know that he will rise again on the last day,” replies Martha, reflecting the fairly recent Jewish belief of life after death. “I am the Resurrection and the Life,” Jesus tells her. This is the core statement of the whole story and is one of the seven great 'I AM' statements in St. John's gospel. And Jesus continues to clarify his meaning, “Whoever believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.” In saying this Jesus is not only affirming that life goes beyond the grave but also that the life he gives, begins here and now for all those who accept and totally assimilate his Way.
Martha then is asked if she believes this and she responds magnificently, “Yes, Lord! I do believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who was to come into the world.” Here is a great confession of faith made by a woman.
d) “See how he loved him.”
Martha now goes back to the house to fetch her sister Mary. She summons her with the beautiful words, “The Master is here and is calling for you.” And Mary rushes out of the house and her fellow-mourners think she is going to visit the tomb of her brother. When she sees Jesus she says the same thing her sister Martha said, “Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died.”
St. John makes it very clear that Jesus loves Martha, Mary and Lazarus. The reality of the humanity of the divine Son is nowhere so easily grasped as here. We now see the very human side of Jesus. Jesus' love is real and his sorrow at the death of Lazarus is real. When he sees them all weeping he himself was touched and was deeply moved. And, as he walked to the tomb, “He wept.” So, some people commented, “See how much he loved him,” There were, of course, the inevitable cynics who questioned why Jesus who worked miracles did not prevent Lazarus from dying. They were jumping the gun and had yet to see the real reason why Lazarus was allowed to die.
e) “Lazarus, come out!”
Arriving at the tomb, which was a kind of cave built into a rock face, Jesus ordered the stone at the entrance to be removed. That certainly got Martha's attention and she objected to it. Knowing that Martha still did not understand what he was about to do, Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” After the rock was removed from the entrance, Jesus thanked the Father for having heard his prayer. After this, Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” And then, to the amazement of all, at the voice of our Lord, Lazarus emerged from the tomb, still wrapped in burial cloths. This miracle, the resurrection of a person who had been dead for four days, is supreme proof that Jesus is Lord, that he has life-giving power.
Finally, the whole story can be read as a parable of the meaning of Jesus as 'Christ' and 'Lord.' In the entire episode, Jesus is the central figure, who challenged each participant by clarifying the central issue, viz. the real meaning of death and life. The raising of Lazarus is not just the resuscitation of a dead man, but is a powerful symbol of a new life that all of us can undergo when we submit to Jesus as Lord and Savior. We can rise from the death of sin to a life bathed in the love of God.
“THE SPIRIT OF THE ONE WHO RAISED JESUS FROM THE DEAD DWELLS IN YOU!”:
In the Second Reading of today from his Letter to the Romans, St. Paul continues the theme of Resurrection which is common to other two readings. Here St. Paul contrasts between two widely contrasting kinds of life, namely, the life of the flesh and the life of the Spirit. He tells that the Spirit of God dwells in them, and that they should also remember that the Spirit of God is God! As such, it is God Himself who dwells in them who belong to Christ. Again, the Spirit of God who raised Jesus from the dead is the same Spirit who dwells in them. And having raised Christ from the dead, through His indwelling, surely He will also give life to their mortal bodies. As can be perceived from the glorious resurrection, all goods things find their ultimate origin in the Father through whom we receive the life of the Spirit. Hence we must convert ourselves to live in a life of holiness for God.
Nothing in life is more certain than death. Yet, many people ask, 'After death, what?' Why the question in the first place? Perhaps because death is the end of our plans and aspirations in life. Perhaps because of the thought of permanent separation from our loved ones. Perhaps because of the uncertainty about what lies beyond. Or perhaps because we just can not accept the incontrovertible signs of our mortality, namely, sickness, pain and deterioration - physically, emotionally and psychologically.
Jesus, who says, “I am the resurrection and the life,” gives meaning to our pains, trials and even death. When we accept all these in faith and love, then our many other deaths acquire a special meaning. For when we center our life in Jesus, when we begin to die to our selfishness and live for others, then Jesus will be glorified in us. This is what it means to rise in glory with him even now.
As followers of Jesus, we believe in the resurrection of the dead; that death is not the end of everything. Rather, it is just a passage into eternal life and that the life hereafter is only a continuation of this life. But this life after death could be ours only on one condition, namely, to believe in Jesus, “He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.”
During the season of Lent, the Church invites us to die to ourselves - the only way for Jesus to become our Life and Resurrection. Then our resurrection from our many other deaths will not come as a surprise when Easter comes. And this is the Good News of today.