5th Sunday in Lent (A)
Readings: Ezekiel 37:12-14; Romans 8:8-11; John 11:1-45
Dear sisters and brothers, on a Sunday such as this, as you listen to the readings at Mass, and perhaps even to the homily, do you sometimes find yourself thinking, if only for a split second: “Boy, this is really boring. What has all this to do with me?” If so, you’re probably not alone. It is difficult, sometimes, to connect with the readings proclaimed at Mass. And often the way in which we listen to the readings compound the difficulty. Consider, for example, the story of Lazarus in today’s gospel.
First we may think that this story is solely about an event in the past. It happened two thousand years ago, to a man named Lazarus, who died and was resuscitated by Jesus. What, we may then think, has that to do with me?
Or, we may instead think that the story is solely about an event in the future. It speaks of the resurrection at the end of time. As Martha says of her brother, “I know he will rise again at the resurrection on the last day.” But, the end of time is probably a long way away, or so we may think. Why worry about it now?
Yet, if the word of God is indeed alive and active (Hb 4:12), then the Lazarus story is saying something to us in the present. It speaks to us not only about what God has done, but also about what God wishes to continue doing for us, in the here and now. As God says to us in the first reading, “I am now going to open your graves… I shall put my spirit in you, and you will live.”
Even so, what can we possibly have in common with Lazarus? Aren’t we all still very much alive? This objection assumes that the Lazarus story is solely about being raised from bodily death. Yet, as some of us already know, in John’s gospel, Jesus’ miracles are called signs. They point to the significance of who Jesus is, and what God is doing through Him. The raising of Lazarus points to something more than a physical resuscitation. And, collectively, the readings today are less about how we can live forever and ever on the face of this earth, than they are about how God continually calls His people into a more meaningful and fulfilling existence, an existence rooted in His love for us. As the second reading reminds us, “Your interests… are not in the unspiritual, but in the spiritual, since the Spirit of God has made his home in you.”
In order to get a sense of this call from God, we need to connect at some level with the experience of Lazarus. What was it like for him, as he was being called by Jesus out of the darkness of the tomb into the bright light of day? Together, let us try to place ourselves in his situation. You may like to close your eyes…
Imagine: There you are, tightly bound in burial cloths, and lying where others have placed you, within the rocky interior of the cave that is now your final resting place, your tomb. With the stone rolled in place, no light can enter. You couldn’t see your own fingers if you held out your hand in front of you. But it doesn’t make a difference to you, since you have already lost the light of consciousness. You are dead.
All is dark for you, without and within.
But then something pierces the darkness – a Voice at once so distant and yet so clear and strangely familiar; a Voice so tender and yet so insistent and powerful. “Lazarus, here! Come out!” And suddenly, the light comes on again. You awake! Your senses are operational again. With the stone rolled aside, light is streaming into the tomb. Yet, with your eyes still covered by the burial cloths, it is the Voice that captures your attention above all else. It is the power of that Voice that wakes you from your deadly slumber.
For a moment, however, you hesitate. The tomb is dark, but it feels safe. To leave it is to step out into the unknown. You flirt with the idea of just lying here, if only for a while longer. But the Voice continues to echo in your mind. And you begin to realize that it resonates with a second voice, one that speaks from within your own heart, mouthing words similar to those of the psalmist: “My soul is waiting for the Lord, I count on his word. My soul is longing for the Lord more than watchman for daybreak.”
And even though you’ve not actually heard the words addressed to you, you begin to appreciate the truth of what the Lord has said to your sister Martha, “If anyone believes in me, even though he dies he will live…” Yes, as you prepare to step out into the unknown, you know that you need to believe and trust in Him who loves you. Indeed, you want to believe in Him, perhaps even more than the watchman desires the breaking of day.
So, finally, you decide to heed the Voice. You rise and stumble out of your rocky grave. Once again the Voice sounds. “Unbind him, let him go free.” Caring hands assist you. The cloths are removed. And as your eyes adjust to the welcome glare of daylight, you behold the Voice for the first time since your burial, the One who is God’s Word, the One who is the Light of the World. And filled with an inexpressible joy in His presence, you rush into his arms and you weep…
Sisters and brothers, what does this brief prayer exercise do for us? Hopefully, it helps us to see that, at some level, it is possible to identify with Lazarus.
The elect, in particular, should be able to recognize the call of Christ that they have heeded, the call that has led and sustained them on the RCIA journey. Even as they continue to prepare themselves for the Easter sacraments, they will sense the urgency of their own desire to forsake their old life of unbelief, so as to embrace a new life in Christ.
The same can surely be said for us who are already baptized. Of course, none of us has been sealed in a tomb of rock. But are there not areas in our lives where we continue to be sealed within tombs of selfishness and fear, of petty jealousies and resentments, of apathy and neglect of those most in need of our help and attention? Are there not areas in our lives where the Voice of the God’s incarnate Word continues to resound, calling us to step out of the cold comfort of our graves into the warm radiance of God’s presence?
I am reminded of a story told by the late Anthony de Mello:
A guru asked his disciples how they could tell when the night had ended and the day begun.
One said, “When you see an animal in the distance and can tell whether it is a cow or a horse.”
“No,” said the guru.
“When you look at a tree in the distance and can tell if it is a mango tree or a durian tree.”
“Wrong again,” said the guru.
“Well, then, what is it?” asked the disciples.
“When you look into the face of any man and recognize your brother in him; when you look into the face of any woman and recognize in her your sister. If you cannot do this, no matter what time it is by the sun it is still night.”
Sisters and brothers, how is Christ calling you out of your tomb today? What is your response?