5th Sunday in Lent (A)
Unbinding The Undead
Picture: cc Antonio David Fernandez
Sisters and brothers, do you like zombies? I know that there are people who like to watch movies about zombies. Just as there are those who like to play zombie video-games. As you know, there are different kinds of zombies. But the kind that you typically find in Hollywood movies have several unmistakable characteristics. For one thing, zombies are usually very ugly. This is because they’re actually already dead. So their flesh is rotting away. You can imagine what that looks like. Very ugly. And scary.
But that’s not all. although already dead, for some reason, zombies are still able to walk around. They’re not completely dead. But neither are they fully alive. Which is why they’re called the living dead, or the undead. Unlike normal human beings, the undead have only one reason for remaining in this world: To satisfy their desperate craving for human flesh. They’re always looking for something, or someone, to eat. Theirs is a totally self-centered, wholly flesh-driven, existence.
Ugly, undead, and driven by an insatiable hunger for human flesh. Quite a miserable way to live, don’t you think? And what makes it even more pitiful is the fact that the undead cannot die. At least not in the way that a human being can. They’re forever condemned to a self-centered existence between death and life. Is there any hope for them? How, if ever, can zombies become truly human again?
As unbelievable as it may sound, sisters and brothers, this is the very question that our readings are inviting us to consider today. How, if ever, is it possible for zombies to become human again? But to appreciate this, we must first find the zombie in our readings. And we do this by considering something that all our readings have in common. In each of them, we find people being raised to life, who are already dead in some way.
In the gospel, Lazarus is dead in the literal sense of the word. Having died from an illness, he had been buried in a cave that was later sealed with a stone. Then, wonder of wonders, Jesus comes along, and calls Lazarus out from his tomb. Jesus unbinds Lazarus from the chains of death and returns him to the land of the living.
In the first reading, although physically alive, the people of Israel have suffered a political death. Their country has been conquered, and they’ve been sent into exile. Like Lazarus, they too have been buried. Not physically, but politically. Not in a cave, but in the faraway land of Babylon. Then, through the prophet Ezekiel, God comes along and calls them from their foreign grave. God promises to unbind the chains of their exile, and to return them to their homeland.
But what, we may wonder, do Lazarus and the Israelites have to do with us? Why should we bother about them? We are not dead. At least not yet. Neither physically nor politically. Not only are we still very much alive and kicking, we also live in a country that some consider to be the most powerful on this planet. Why bother about Lazarus and the Israelites?
The reason is that the physical and political death that we find in these readings point us to yet another form of death. In the second reading, Paul speaks to the Romans about those who suffer from spiritual death. Although such people may continue to walk around as though they were alive, they are not. Indeed, Paul writes about such people in a way that reminds us, quite strikingly, of Hollywood zombies. Those, says Paul, who are in the flesh cannot please God. Or, in other words, those who live zombie-like lives–lives driven only by their own self-centered and fleshly interests–are cut off from God. Although physically alive, they are spiritually dead.
And can we deny, sisters and brothers, that there is a zombie-like quality to this modern society in which we live? Our whole global economy is built upon the production and consumption of goods at ever faster and cheaper rates. And a crucial part of this process is the exploitation of human labor–cheap human labor. For example, I may not think about it much, but the new sneakers that I buy at the store may actually cost far more than just the price stated on the tag. It may also carry the blood and sweat and tears of people working under difficult conditions in some other corner of the world. Shouldn’t my own constant hunger for comfort and for consumer goods produced at the cost of the suffering of others remind me of a zombie’s ceaseless craving for human flesh? Could it be that our modern consumeristic existence is no different from–no less miserable than–that of a zombie’s? Isn’t this what Paul means by a life lived in the flesh?
And yet, according to Paul, we Christians should no longer be living like this. Through our baptism, we who were once zombies, have been brought back to life. We have been filled with the spirit of Christ, a spirit that gives us the power to do something that zombies cannot. When Jesus travels to Bethany in the gospel, he accomplishes two things at once. Not only does he raise his friend Lazarus from the dead, but he also makes the religious authorities so angry with him that they decide to kill him. By raising his friend from the dead, Jesus sets in motion a process that will eventually lead to his own death on a cross. And Jesus does both these things–the raising of Lazarus and the angering of the authorities–for the same reason. He does them out of love. At Bethany, Jesus does the very thing that zombies cannot. He shows the power of love by laying down his life for his friends. And it is this same power that we have received as followers of Christ.
This then, sisters and brothers, is the answer to our question. How, if ever, can zombies become human again? By living in the spirit of Christ. The same spirit that was given to us at our baptism. The same spirit for which we prayed in our opening prayer, when we asked our Father in heaven to change our selfishness into self-giving, and to help us to embrace the world, so that we may transform the darkness of its pain into the life and joy of Easter.
Sisters and brothers, what will it take to raise the zombie today?