As we progress through Lent towards Easter, the Gospel readings get longer and longer. 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—just the readings alone in this “mother of all vigil Masses” last an entire hour. This year we will baptize 7 adults at the Easter Vigil, so don’t miss it. All of these readings, however, conclude with a very short Gospel on Easter Sunday: “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” Death—the sum of all human fears, to be extinguished, forgotten, life rendered meaningless—death for Jesus is just a brief sleep from which he will easily wake us. We think death is the ultimate finality, but Jesus dismisses death with a simple word.
The raising of Lazarus is a drama second only to the Passion itself. It is story haunted by death’s spectral form and putrid stench: “but Lord, he has been dead four days.” Jesus faces death, and is “deeply troubled,” but in the end, obliges death to glorify God by conceding to life. “This sickness is not to end in death, but is for the glory of God.” As the Eastern liturgy says, “by your death you have trampled death.” O death, where is now thy sting?
Where were you?
A few brief points from this long tale. We commonly say that death and taxes are life’s only absolutes (your taxes are due in less than two weeks, by the way). But Jesus shows us that death is not absolute. He describes Lazarus’ death as “sleeping.” “Lazarus is dead … but I am going to awaken him.” Love is greater, and will undo death. This great truth is 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.” Both of the dead man’s sisters reproach him in exactly the same words: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” God, where were you when we needed you? Jesus receives these panicked accusations calmly, and simply says, “I AM the resurrection and the life” (do you need me to prove it to you?). And that is the point of this last and greatest miracle of Jesus: He raises a man four days dead to reassure us. Nothing is beyond His reach. He can rebuild anything.
Jesus shudders and Jesus weeps
Having said this, however, Jesus himself weeps in front of his friend’s tomb. He shudders 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. I will die in your place. You will all die, but you will rise to a new life through my death.
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. Suffering does not hurt us. Death does not hurt us. Only unbelief hurts us. Suffering and death must strengthen our faith, that we may not fear, but rather believe in the Resurrection and the Life, Jesus Christ our Lord.
Tonight you will hear a man who has spoken all over the world over the last 20 years on the greatest scientific evidence of Christ’s resurrection. Jack Sacco worked for several years producing programs at EWTN. A friend asked him to do a program on the Shroud of Turin, and he replied “hasn’t science proven that a fake?” His friend asked him what “science” he was referring to, and Jack said simply “well, I saw it on the evening news.” So Jack began analyzing the data for himself, and found not one shred of evidence that the image of a man crucified and risen was a forgery. This linen cloth records the scourging and the nails, but it also records some sort of flash of subatomic energies released after this man’s death. Christ has died, but Christ has risen!