Fifth Sunday of Lent

April 2, 2017
St. Matthew's Catholic Church, Statesboro
Very Reverend Douglas Clark, STL, VF

The Fifth Sunday of Lent

The Raising of Lazarus

The raising of Lazarus from the dead is the sixth, last, and most direct sign performed by Jesus and recounted by Saint John in the first half of the Gospel. The six signs from the wedding feast at Cana to the raising of Lazarus all point to a seventh – the sign and reality of Christ’s glorious resurrection from the dead. Quite naturally, Christ’s raising of Lazarus is the clearest sign of that greater resurrection.

John tells us that Jesus’ friends, the sisters Martha and Mary, about whom Luke also writes, had a brother named Lazarus. And Lazarus was also a dear friend of Jesus—Mary calls him “the one you love.” Now Lazarus was taken ill. Given the state of medicine in the ancient world, any illness could prove fatal. So Martha and Mary send for Jesus to come but he does not come immediately—indeed he, he contemplates returning to hostile Judea. His delay is puzzling at first. Then Lazarus’ death is reported to Him and he declares that he delayed in order “that you may believe.”

By the time Jesus arrives at Bethany Lazarus has been dead four days. John takes pains to let us know that Lazarus is really, really dead “he stinketh.” Martha reproaches Jesus, mildly, and with great faith, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Jesus responds, “Your brother will rise,” to which Martha replies, “I know he will rise, in the resurrection on the last day. In this reply, Martha reveals that she shares the Pharisees’ belief in a final resurrection--something in which the more traditional Sadducees did not believe. But it is a bit hard to say what exactly this “resurrection on the last day” was thought to entail. It seems that there was a general expectation that the Messiah would come and then “on the third day,” the dead would rise – some to eternal life, others to eternal death. But there was no expectation that an individual would rise before the last day.

Jesus undoubtedly surprised Martha by telling her straight out “I am the resurrection and the life.” With great faith, Martha accepts this statement. “Yes Lord, I have come to believe that you are the Christ—the Messiah—the Son of God, the one who is coming into the world.” Jesus will now demonstrate that he is indeed “all of the above”—and yet fully human as well. As he encounters Mary, weeping, he too weeps for his friend. Jesus approaches the grave where Lazarus is entombed and orders the stone rolled away. He prays to his Father and summons Lazarus from the tomb: “Lazarus, come out!” And then the astounding thing happens! The dead man still wrapped in his burial shroud—restored to life and to his family.

Now Lazarus’ “resurrection” is actually resuscitation. Although the dead man has been restored to life—John will make it a point of showing him at dinner with Jesus—he will actually die again. It will not be so with Jesus. He who is the resurrection and the life will also die, but when he rises, it will be to an altogether new and glorified life. “Life’s captain died, but now he reigns, nevermore to die.” As miraculous as the raising of Lazarus was, it is but a sign of that saving reality that we are about to celebrate: the death of Jesus Christ for our sins and his resurrection for our justification.

But this Gospel story has more to tell us. In a way, we are in the same state as Lazarus. Although we don’t like to acknowledge it, we are not only mortal but to some extent already dead. Our sins make us stink in the graves we have constructed with them. The Lord is speaking to us as well when he says, “Lazarus, come out.” This season of Lent challenges us to recognize our sinfulness, the reign of death in our lives, and to do something about it, namely, to return to the Father, to “come back to him,” through penance, which is the outward sign of our inner and ongoing metanoia, conversion through Jesus Christ and in the Holy Spirit.

The Lord is also inviting us to take full part in the great celebrations of the Lord’s dying and rising during Holy Week: the Chrism Mass at the Cathedral on Tuesday, April 15, and above all the Paschal Triduum here at Saint Matthew’s: the Vigil Mass of the Lord’s Supper on the eve of Good Friday (that is, Holy Thursday night, by our modern reckoning) at 7:00, the Afternoon Liturgy of Good Friday, beginning at 12:10, and the Vigil Mass of the Lord’s Resurrection, the first Mass of Easter Sunday (on Holy Saturday night, by modern reckoning, beginning this year at 8:30 p.m.), at which those elected for baptism are initiated into the Church through Baptism, Confirmation and the Eucharist.

By joining in these great celebrations, the greatest liturgies of the Church year, we can share more fully in the Lord’s triumph over sin and death, that same triumph that was prefigured in his raising of his friend Lazarus from the dead.

Three years ago, Pope Benedict XVI reminded us that on the Fifth Sunday of Lent, when the resurrection of Lazarus is proclaimed, we Christians “are faced with the ultimate question of our existence: ‘I am the resurrection and the life… Do you believe this?’” Together with Martha, let us all place our hopes in Jesus of Nazareth: “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, the one who was to come into this world.”

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