The weeks of Lent are passing quickly. As they do we get closer and closer to Holy Week. The call for faith intensifies as we will once again be confronted with the cross. We will journey to the darkest place in human existence — suffering and death. The journey, as we already know, will not end here but through this place to resurrection and life.
The remaining weeks of Lent provide us with an opportunity to reflect on and sometimes to wrestle with the question of suffering and death. How do we deal with these all-too-real aspects of life? How do we understand them? How do we make sense of it all?
The Christian approach to these questions is not so much an exercise to provide an answer to the questions — such as a textbook or instruction manual would do — but rather to enter into the mystery of human life. The mystery recognizes that while the experience is deeply personal it is not solitary because we journey together in communion.
The mystery centers on a relationship of love. The relationship is established and brought to fulfillment in Jesus Christ. The mystery involves a union with him and through that union any suffering and ultimately death will lead to healing and life.
The Gospel this week gives us insight into this mystery during the public ministry of Jesus. Suffering and death abound, as does life. Everyone involved in the narrative is confronted with the experience. The passage begins with Lazarus’ illness which quickly leads to death. Life experiences related to this are obvious in Jesus, Martha, Mary, their friends and the disciples. They experience some of the following: sadness, sorrow, grief, confusion, anger, doubt and a profound sense of loss.
Jesus himself, though fully aware of what is happening and what will happen, does not distance himself from the loss. He weeps at the death of his friend. His compassion extends to all his friends and disciples. He is deeply moved. The insight gives us another insight to God’s embrace of human nature. His love knows no bounds.
Faith is central to Jesus’ mission. The Gospel passages these weeks of Lent (Year A) particularly remind us of the call to faith. Jesus encounters, offers and invites. He encounters people of all different backgrounds and life experiences. He offers the gift of life. He invites them to place their faith in him. It is through this faith that they will be able to enter into the mystery of life with him.
Early in the passage, when he speaks with the disciples about Lazarus’ death, Jesus says: “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.” He is associating what will happen to Lazarus with a manifestation of his glory. The miracle, or using Johannine language, “sign,” points to something even greater than the restoration of life. The miracle points to Jesus’ authority over life. He has the ability to restore life.
This points us forward to Jesus’ own death and the resurrection that will bring eternal life to all who believe. Jesus furthers his teaching when he encounters Mary, his grieving friend. After their initial exchange, he says to Mary: “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. Do you believe this?”
Mary replies: “Yes, Lord. I have come to believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, the one who is coming into the world.” He then goes to the tomb. When Jesus orders the stone to be removed, Martha, Lazarus’ other sister, is incredulous and says: “Lord, by now there will be a stench; he has been dead for four days.”
All this serves to highlight the miracle. Lazarus is dead. Jesus, once again emphasizing the need for faith, answers Martha: “Did I not tell you that if you believe you will see the glory of God?” At this point, he makes his prayer to the Father. In that prayer, Jesus prays that through the miracle/sign the people may “believe that you sent me.”
Jesus then utters the famous words: “Lazarus, come out!” He does, bound hand and foot with the burial bands and his face was wrapped in cloth. Jesus then says: “Untie him and let him go.”
Our Lenten journey is leading us to enter more fully into the paschal mystery of Jesus’ passion, death and resurrection. On Easter the elect throughout the world will enter into this mystery through baptism. The baptized will renew their baptismal faith and be sprinkled with water reminding us that we too have been baptized into this mystery.
We have been joined to Jesus’ death and promised a share in his resurrection. The mystery we celebrate gives meaning to our lives, enlivens our faith, strengthens our hope and envelops us in love.
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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