We have reached the Fifth Sunday of Lent, with the towering story of Lazarus, having seen the Readings wax longer and richer as we move towards Easter. We will hear the longest Gospel of the year next Sunday (the entire Passion narrative), and finally, a week after that, nine lengthy readings cover the whole sweep of salvation history at the Easter Vigil. All of these readings, however, conclude with a very short Gospel on Easter Sunday: “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here. He has been raised up.” Astute homilists preach shorter sermons as the readings grow longer, and I pray that I am growing more astute with age.
Haunted by death
The raising of Lazarus is a drama second only to the Passion itself. It is story haunted by death’s spectral and putrid visage that, however, does not end in death. Jesus actually plays a cat and mouse game with death—giving it some brief play, but then yanking it back. Not only does he say, in the end, “death, where is thy sting,” but he says “thou, death, wilt serve me.” And death, indeed, serves the glory of God in the sickness, death, and resurrection of Lazarus.
Where were you?
A few brief points from this long tale. First, messengers tell Jesus that Lazarus (“the one you love”) is dying. We commonly say that death and taxes are life’s only absolutes—tax day is next week, by the way—but Jesus says that death is not absolute. He describes Lazarus’ death as “sleeping.” “Lazarus is dead … but I am going to awaken him.” Love can undo death. This great truth is somehow told in many fairy tales, as in the prince’s kiss awakening the dead princess from her “sleep.” By his death, Christ has become the true prince of this world, able to awaken all who are dead by his divine kiss.
Jesus gets to Bethany “four days late,” at least in the mind of the dead man’s sisters. Both reproach him in exactly the same words: “If you had been here, my brother would not have died.” These sisters are deeply upset, or at least confused, about Jesus. Where were you when we needed you? You said that you had come that they might have life; that he who eats your bread will never die; that he who drinks your water would have a spring of life-giving water within him. What about all these promises now? My brother, the one you love, is dead. All of these reproaches Jesus receives calmly, and simply says, I AM the resurrection and the life. Shall I prove it to you?
And then Jesus himself weeps in the face of death. Have you ever seen a grown man cry? I saw a dear friend cry recently at his mother’s funeral Mass. Manly tears makes you love him faces death’s might manfully. Jesus’ soul is deeply troubled, he trembles and shakes with repulsion at the stench of death. Christ will raise this man, but it will cost him. With loud cry, like that from the Cross, “eloi eloi lema sabachtani,” Jesus calls the dead man out. “Untie him, and let him go.” By my death, I have come to untie you from the bondage of death. You will all die, but you will rise stronger, more beautiful, and sinless.
Belief in Life
Death has never been absolute. There is only one absolute, and that absolute is a person, a person who is love. All things, St. Paul writes, especially suffering and death, work for the good for those who love God. We must imitate Christ, who shakes and weeps at the stench of his friend’s death, and yet believes in Someone stronger than death. This story begins with the question of belief (“I am glad I was not there that you may believe”), it centers on belief (“Martha, do you believe this?”), and it ends in belief (“those who saw this sign began to believe in him”). Suffering does not hurt us. Death does not hurt us. Only unbelief hurts us. Suffering and death must strengthen your faith, that you may not fear, but rather believe in the Resurrection and the Life, Jesus Christ our Lord.