The Raising of Lazarus

Fifth Sunday of Lent. Ez 37:12-14; Ps 130:1-8; Rom 8:8-11; Jn 11:1-45

Since the accounts of Jesus' miracles are so familiar to us from the readings at Mass, there is a slight risk that we lose sight of the awesome realities they describe. Awe and wonder are especially appropriate for the miracle described in today's Gospel: the raising of Lazarus. Many of us have experienced the death of someone we love. What would it be like to see someone we love die, have the funeral, bury him, and, four days later, to see him walk out of the tomb? “The dead man came out, tied hand and foot with burial bands, and his face was wrapped in a cloth.” The experience would be both wonderful and, probably, terrifying. Yet after the shock, we would experience joy beyond words in being reunited with the dead person. Indeed, John's Gospel a little later mentions that Lazarus is at supper in Bethany, enjoying a meal with his family. Meanwhile Mary, his sister, anoints the feet of Jesus with costly ointment and wipes it away with her hair. The world can never be the same again, when you have seen the dead come forth at the voice of the Son of God.

Now the implications of the raising of Lazarus are immense. All of our lives are lived in the valley of the shadow of death, which no human power can prevent or postpone for ever. Yet, by raising Lazarus, Jesus has brought light into this darkness. Jesus has shown us that our souls, with our unique identities, do not cease to exist when we die, for the man Lazarus who died is the same man who was raised from the dead four days later. Jesus has also, of course, shown us his power over death and given us a foretaste of the final, general resurrection, “For the hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come forth, those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of judgment.” (John 5:28-29)

This miracle should, therefore, be a source of great hope and comfort for us, which is why the account of the raising of Lazarus is popular at funerals. Yet there is a more subtle and perhaps even more important lesson in today's Gospel. To appreciate this lesson, it is necessary to understand what death meant for devout Jewish people. For the Jews, the worst consequence of death was not the loss of life, liberty, friends or possessions. The worst aspect of death was the breaking of their union with God. As Psalm 88 laments, “I am ... like one forsaken among the dead, like the slain that lie in the grave, like those whom thou dost remember no more, for they are cut off from thy hand.” Similarly, Psalm 115 warns, “The dead do not praise the LORD.” It was the breaking of their union with God, of being cut off from God that the Jews feared most about death. It is this fear that Jesus addresses in this Gospel with these words, “Everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” As you may have noticed, the English translation of these words does not make sense. Most people who live and believe in Jesus Christ either have died or will die, that is, lose their natural lives, like everyone else. Jesus, however, is not talking about ‘life’ in the conventional sense. The original Greek word in the Gospel is different, but since we have no matching word in English, Italian or Latin, the difference is lost in translation. The word Jesus uses for ‘life’ is the same word he uses for the Eucharist when he says, “I am the bread of ‘life’” (John 6:35). St. Paul uses the same word in today's Second Reading when he says, “The one who raised Christ from the dead will give ‘life’ to your mortal bodies also, through his Spirit dwelling in you.” By ‘life’, Jesus therefore means the life of grace, the life given by the Trinity, a sharing in the life of God Himself. So when Jesus says “everyone who lives and believes in me will never die,” at least part of what he means is this: if, in this present existence, we share the life of God through the sacraments, and if we die in a state of grace, we shall not lose this divine life. Death will not break our union with God. If we become friends of God in this life, in the brief time that is given to us, this friendship will endure beyond death. And one day God will also raise our mortal bodies in glory.

So if we leave this life in friendship with God we will enjoy that friendship forever. And this brings me to my final, brief point. The friendships of God are truly personal friendships. Jesus weeps at the death of his friend Lazarus. Peter, James, John, Thomas, Martha, Mary and many others in the New Testament are his particular friends. Jesus is brought up in a particular family, by Mary and Joseph. Jesus does not love an abstract idea of humanity, but loves this person and that person, you and me. You might say that the whole purpose of our existence here on earth is to become personal friends with God, to know and to love God, to become part of the intimate family of God. May everything we do in our lives help to lead us to that goal.

Fr. Andrew Pinsent, St. Ambrose Church, St. Louis, 9th March 2008

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