(See the readings for the Fifth Sunday of Lent, March 29, 2020)
“Lazarus, come out!” Jesus says to Lazarus, who lies dead in the tomb. At the command, Lazarus comes out alive, even though he had been dead and buried for four days. Jesus gives him life.
Why now? Why Lazarus? What is the significance of this miracle? What does it mean for us today, two thousand or so years later? These are some questions that might arise as we hear or read the account for this Sunday’s gospel passage.
When we look at the account from the context of John’s Gospel, along with the liturgical celebrations these past few weeks, we might say that the raising of Lazarus deals with faith in Christ Jesus.
Two weeks ago, we heard the story of the Samaritan woman at the well. The encounter provided an opportunity for Jesus to call the woman to faith. He promised her “living water” that would well up from within, and then invited her to place her faith in him. She did so and so did many others who came to Jesus through her witness.
Last week, we heard the story of the man born blind, whose sight was restored by Jesus. The man was also invited to place his faith in the Son of Man, and he responded, “I do believe.” The restoration of the sense of sight was a “sign” of something greater that came later after he met Jesus the second time. That greater “sight” was faith.
The raising of Lazarus is essentially a story about faith in Jesus — not so much Lazarus’s belief, but that of everyone else.
In the beginning of the story, Jesus is not present. Lazarus and his sisters, Martha and Mary, live in Bethany. Jesus is somewhere else, and the sisters send a messenger to him to let him know that Lazarus was sick. When Jesus receives the message, he says to those with him: “This illness is not to end in death, but is for the glory of God, that the Son of God may be glorified through it.”
His words were probably first received as ordinary. Jesus had cured many people before. His disciples were aware of this. He had also shown great knowledge and insight, so perhaps the might have thought that Jesus “knew” Lazarus would get well.
This first impression will change as the story develops. At this point Jesus decides not to go immediately to see Lazarus but rather waits two days. When he informs the disciples, they try to stop him, warning him of the growing hostilities in the region. He again mentions the purpose: “Lazarus has died. And I am glad for you that I was not there, that you may believe.”
He travels to Bethany, where the sisters are grieving the death of their brother. The call to faith is once again highlighted in Jesus’ conversation with Martha. Jesus says to her: “Your brother will rise.” Martha responds: “I know he will rise, in the resurrection on the last day.”
Jesus then says to her: “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.” Then he invites Martha to faith: “Do you believe this?” She affirms, saying: “Yes Lord. I have come to believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, the one who is coming into the world.” Martha professes her faith in Christ Jesus.
The story then moves to an encounter with Mary. Jesus was still outside the town when he met with Martha, who secretly sends word of the Lord’s arrival to Mary. The secrecy seems to involve protecting Jesus from those who are seeking his life. Mary, steeped in grief, goes immediately to Jesus as do all those who were gathered with her. The sorrow is overwhelming so much so that Jesus weeps.
Mary says, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Soon after this, Jesus asks to be taken to the tomb. Meanwhile, people are wondering: “Could not the one who opened the eyes of the blind man have done something so that this man would not have died?” When Jesus asks for the stone to be rolled back, he hears objection: “Lord, by now there will be a stench; he has been dead for four days.” No one is expecting what will come next, not even Martha and Mary, it is so extraordinary.
As the story develops, we see elements or forces that may inhibit, hinder or block faith. The forces against Jesus are real. The disciples worry about that, as does Martha. Grief and sorrow can be consuming and may cloud over the possibility that Jesus could restore life. Doubt shows itself to some degree when the townsfolk question whether things would have been different if Jesus had arrived earlier. There are plenty of reasons generated that might block the call to faith.
Yet Jesus moves forward and continues to invite. These obstacles help highlight the significance of the miracle – the call to faith.
So Jesus says, “Did I not tell you that if you believe you will see the glory of God?” He then prays to the Father saying, “I thank you for hearing me. I know that you always hear me; but because of the crowd here I have said this, that they may believe that you sent me.”
He then cries out in a loud voice: “Lazarus, come out!”
Lazarus comes out of the tomb bound head to feet in the burial cloths. “Untie him and let him go.” Lazarus has been restored to life, to his family and his friends. He lives.
The evangelist concludes the story saying: “Now many of the Jews who had come to Mary and seen what he had done began to believe in him.” So it seems like the invitation to faith is one of the central elements of Jesus’s restoring Lazarus to life. The life he offers comes through his passion, death and resurrection which were foreshadowed by the Lazarus miracle. Jesus offers us the invitation to life. He has the power to give life, eternal life. He invites us to faith.
While we are always called to faith, in the sense of an ongoing relationship with Christ, these days in particular may give us an opportunity to develop a deeper trust in the Lord. As we journey through Lent, we walk with Jesus on the road to Calvary. The invitation to faith, or deeper faith, is ever present, even as the circumstances of life pose challenges at different times.
Perhaps the wide and varied challenges from the coronavirus pandemic invite us to walk still more closely with Christ.
Some might be fearful. Some might be frustrated. Some might be bored — those unable to work, attend school or socialize.
Some might be overwhelmed, particularly medical workers, civic officials and employers. Some might be getting annoyed with their family members.
There are plenty of other challenges in this moment as well. But in all these, there is the call to faith.
Jesus is risen and walks with us in every aspect of life. He is present, even in the most unusual situations. He calls us to faith and it’s in faith that he will lead us to life.
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of Our Lady of Grace Parish, Penndel, and a former professor of Sacred Scripture and rector of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.
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