The altar crucifixes, the statues, and other sacred images are all covered in purple today. Until relatively recently, this 5th Sunday of Lent was called “Passion Sunday.” With just 2 weeks to go till Easter, today marks the beginning of Lent’s final phase, as the Church focuses our attention more and more on the final events of Jesus’ earthly life – and why those events matter for us today.
The gospel [John 11:1-45] we just heard recounts the last miracle of Jesus’ public life – miracles which John’s Gospel calls “signs” because they serve to reveal Jesus and invite us to respond to him with faith. The raising of Lazarus is the last and greatest of these “signs.” But the raising of Lazarus from the dead also led the authorities to seek Jesus’ death. So life and death are mixed together, as the same event that suggests the new life Jesus makes possible for us also results (on the part of his enemies) in a decision for death. The apostle Thomas’s somewhat surprising exclamation, “Let us also go to die with him,” is actually addressed to us, as the Church invites us to accompany Jesus in his final journey.
In Rome, the Lenten stational liturgy is celebrated today with special solemnity at Saint Peter’s Basilica. Many of the Basilica’s relics are exposed for veneration on the main altar above Peter’s tomb, and at Vespers there is a procession and special veneration of an image of Christ believed by some to be Veronica’s veil.
On top of all that, today the Church celebrates the 3rd (and final) Scrutiny of the elect, of those, that is, who are preparing for baptism just two weeks from now at Easter. According to the rubrics, the Scrutinies “should complete the conversion of the elect and deepen their resolve to hold fast to Christ and to carry out their decision to love God above all.” How’s that for a modest goal? It would, of course, be absurdly ambitious if we were relying entirely on ourselves. But we’re not. It is Christ who is at work in us, Christ who (as we just heard) is the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him [Hebrews 5:9].
All of which brings us back to the amazing story of Jesus and Lazarus. What starts out as a genuinely touching and tender story about the human friendship between Jesus and Lazarus (and Lazarus’ sisters) becomes a story about our relationship now with the Risen Christ, as the unexpected extension of Lazarus’ earthly lifespan signals Jesus’ offer to us of a resurrection similar to his own.
The friendship shared by Jesus and Lazarus extended also to his sisters, Martha and Mary, who first sent him the news of their brother’s serious sickness. Strangely, however, he initially seemed to ignore their message, letting Lazarus die and be buried, thus setting the stage for his greatest miracle, but before that for an important conversation with Martha, which for so many centuries has been the prescribed gospel reading at Catholic funerals.
Listening to them talk today, we hear Jesus’ one-sentence answer to Martha, Your brother will rise, (and her rather matter-of-fact response) rather matter-of-factly ourselves. But there was nothing matter-of-fact about it! Whatever else may happen to people when they die and whatever different beliefs people had about what happened to people when they died, most people in the ancient world knew for a fact that dead people definitely do not rise back to life from the dead. Among Jews, however, there was at least one group – the Pharisees (whose beliefs Martha apparently shared) – who held the distinctly contrarian view that, whatever else may happen to people when they died, a general resurrection of the dead would eventually follow – sometime in the future, on the last day.
As he did in his earlier conversations with the Samaritan woman and the man born blind, Jesus focuses the conversation on himself, using it to reveal something important about himself. Jesus’ surprising answer to Martha, I am the resurrection and the life, was intended to hint ahead to his own unique experience of resurrection – something neither Martha nor anyone else would have understood at the time, since no one was then expecting the Messiah (or, for that matter anyone else) to rise from the dead, all by himself, ahead of everyone else.
We, however, can follow the story backwards, so to speak. We start from the fundamental fact that Jesus has risen from the dead, and then we understand his death - and his whole life - in the light of that.
Lazarus was brought back from the tomb to resume his ordinary life (and then to die again eventually). Unlike Lazarus, however, Jesus would rise out of his tomb in order to live forever. Bystanders had to take away the stone for Lazarus to be able to come out, and Lazarus himself emerged bound hand and foot. In Jesus’ case, however, no one would either have to help him to come out or have to untie him. The resurrected life of the Risen Christ is something altogether new and different and means death’s decisive defeat.
Hence the threat that this subversive belief in the resurrection posed – and still poses – to those who see only the familiar world we now know.
John’s Gospel goes on to tell how, as a result of this event, the political leadership decided to kill Jesus - and to eliminate the evidence by killing Lazarus too. It’s like that scene in Oscar Wilde’s play Salome, when Herod, hearing that Jesus has been raising people from the dead, declares: “I forbid him to do that. I allow no man to raise the dead.”
The raising of Lazarus looks ahead to the resurrection of Jesus, which will finally fulfill God’s promise to Ezekiel, [Exekiel 37:12-14] which we heard earlier: I will open your graves and have you rise from them. I will put my spirit in you that you may live. I have promised, and I will do it, says the Lord.
Martha’s invitation to Mary, The teacher is here and is asking for you, is addressed to all of us, who are in turn invited to address it to one another - and to this world which so desperately needs to hear it, but which sometimes seems so lacking in hope.
After experiencing what Jesus had done for Lazarus, many believed in him, but others went to report him to his enemies. Jesus’ own resurrection, to which the experience of Lazarus looks forward, likewise challenges each of us to respond - one way or the other.
Homily for the 3rd Scrutiny of the Elect, the 5th Sunday of Lent, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, March 22, 2015.