9 March 2008, Fifth Sunday of the Lent

Ezekiel 37:12-14;   Romans 8:8-11;   John 11:1-45

ANOTHER GREAT STORY from John for our Lenten reading today, which links up with the stories of the woman at the well and the man born blind of the previous two Sundays.  They are all focusing especially on the baptisms which will take place during the Easter Vigil in the context of the Paschal Mystery.  The underlying theme is life and death and life again. 

The story opens with the announcement that Lazarus, the brother of Martha and Mary, is ill.  Jesus’ immediate response is to say that this illness will not result in the death of Lazarus but that it will be an occasion for God’s glory to reveal to all and for glory to come to his Son also.  And, though we are told he had a deep love for Lazarus and his sisters, he remained in the same place for another two days.  Eventually he 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 react in great alarm.  The place is very dangerous for Jesus – and for them.  They want to know if Jesus is intending to go back to a place where recently people had wanted to stone him.  Jesus’ response is that the daytime is the time for getting things done; when the night comes nothing can be done.  “During the night one stumbles, because there is no light.”  Right now, is, in Jesus’ view, a time of light.  Jesus now tells his disciples that Lazarus has fallen asleep and Jesus will go to wake him.  Taking his words literally, as they often do, the disciples at once see that the visit will not be necessary.  If he is just asleep, then he will get well soon.  Then Jesus speaks the truth unambiguously: “Lazarus has died.”  And he is glad that this has happened because it will be an occasion for them to increase their belief in Jesus. 

By the time Jesus arrived in Bethany, Lazarus had already been dead 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.”  “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 us.  This is the core statement of the whole story and is one of the seven great ‘I AM’ statements in 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 tells us he is life and everything.

Martha 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 the great confession which is made by Peter in the name of his fellow-disciples, but here is made by a woman.  It is to be linked with the revelations that Jesus makes of himself to another woman, the Samaritan woman by the well and the blind beggar.

Martha now goes back to the house to fetch her sister says, “The Master is here and is calling for you.”  Mary now 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 said: “Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died.”   We now see the very human side of Jesus.  We know already that Jesus was very attached to this family.  It is likely that it provided a place of refuge when things got too ‘hot’ in nearby Jerusalem.  When he sees them all weeping he himself “was touched and was deeply moved”.  And, as he walked to the tomb, “he wept”.  The language implies that Jesus, like the others, was sobbing deeply.  “See how much he loved him,” commented some of the bystanders.  There were, of course, the inevitable cynics: “He gave sight to the blind man, didn’t he?  Could he not have kept Lazarus from dying?”  They were jumping the gun and had yet to see the real reason why Lazarus was allowed to die. Arriving at the tomb, Martha, who still does not realise what is going to take place, warns Jesus that the body after four days in that hot climate will already be decomposing and will smell strongly.  Jesus reminds her of her great statement of belief she had just made. 

Now comes the climactic moment.  Jesus says a prayer of thanks to his Father for what is about to happen.    With that he ordered Lazarus to come out of the grave.  And Lazarus, still wrapped in the burial clothes and with a cloth covering his face, steps out of the tomb to the astonishment of those standing by.  Jesus tells them, “Untie him and let him free.”  The result of this, many of those who had come out to mourn with Martha and Mary began to believe in Jesus.

The whole story can be read as a parable of the meaning of Jesus as Christ and Lord.  The raising of Lazarus is not just the resuscitation of a dead man but is a powerful symbol of the new life that all of us can undergo when we submit to Jesus as Lord and Saviour.  We can rise from the death of sin to a life bathed in the love of God.  We can understand how meaningful all this is in the context of the Paschal Mystery where we celebrate the love of God shown for us through the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus.  How meaningful it is in the context of those catechumens who are preparing to receive Baptism at the Easter Vigil and how meaningful it is for our own lives as we prepare to make a fresh start in living out our own Baptism.

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