Sunday, March 21, 2010

Another Homily

To try out this new blog, yesterday I posted a version of my homily for this morning's 8:00 Mass. Here is today's second homily - the one I gave at the 10:00 Mass for the 3rd Scrutiny of those preparing for baptism at Easter. (Posting was easier the second time. So I guess I am getting the hang of it!)
This 5th Sunday of Lent was formerly called “Passion Sunday.” It marks the traditional beginning of the final phase of Lent (with just 2 weeks to go till Easter), as the Church deliberately focuses our attention more & more on the climactic final events of Jesus’ earthly life – and the supreme significance of those events for each one of us today. The gospel we just heard recounts the final miracle of Jesus’ public life – miracles John’s Gospel calls “signs” because they serve to reveal Jesus & invite us to faith in him.
In John’s gospel, however, the raising of Lazarus also had – as a direct consequence – the authorities’ fateful decision to have Jesus executed. So life & death are mixed together in this story in more ways than one. The same event that is intended to suggest the new life that Jesus makes possible for us also results (on the part of Jesus’ enemies) in a decision for death.
It starts out as a story about the wonderful human friendship between Jesus & Lazarus. What starts out as a story about human friendhsip quickly becomes a story about a dramatic extension of Lazarus’ earthly lifespan & so serves also as a story about our relationship now with the Risen Christ & his offer to us of a resurrection similar to his own.
Friendship (as Aristotle observed) is something without which life would hardly be bearable. The friendship of Jesus & Lazarus extended also to his sisters, Martha & Mary, who first sent him news of their brother’s fatal illness. Strangely, however, he initially ignored their message, thus setting the stage for a series of conversations, the most important & familiar of which was Jesus’ conversation with Martha, who started by seeming to scold Jesus (as perhaps only a good & true friends could) for his not having shown up in time.
It is no certainly accident that Jesus’ conversation with Martha was the Gospel reading traditionally read in the Roman liturgy at funerals.
No doubt we have all had the experience at a funeral or a wake of wanting to say something significant but ultimately having little more than the tried & true common expressions of conventional consolation – to answer the sad & anguished feelings that inevitably rise from broken hearts. Perhaps, that may have been how Jesus’ initial response sounded to Martha.
Listening in on their conversation today, we hear his one-sentence answer to Martha, Your brother will rise, along with her matter-of-fact response, rather matter-of-factly ourselves. We forget that most people in the ancient world agreed that, whatever else might happen to people after they die, dead people definitely do not rise back to life from the dead. Among the Jews, however, there was one group – the Pharisees (whose beliefs Martha apparently shared) – that held the rather distinct view that, whatever else may happen to people after they died, there would someday (presumably when the Messiah comes) be a general resurrection of the dead.
Jesus’ surprising answer to Martha, I am the resurrection and the life, hinted, however, ahead to his own unique experience of resurrection – something neither Martha (nor anyone else) would have understood at the time, since no one was expecting the Messiah (or anyone else) to rise from the dead, all by himself, ahead of everyone else. (For that matter, no one was really expecting the Messiah to die - let alone rise from the dead!)
We, however, read the story backwards, so to speak. We start from Easter, from the fundamental fact that Jesus Christ has already risen from the dead, & then we work backwards, understanding his death & his entire life in light of that.
Lazarus was brought out of his tomb to resume his ordinary life (& then to die again eventually). Jesus, however, 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, & Lazarus himself emerged still bound hand & 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 an altogether new & different kind of existence, the decisive defeat of death & the recreation of our dying old world.
Hence the threat that this subversive belief in the resurrection posed - & still poses – to all who see only the familiar world we now know. John’s gospel goes on to tell how the political elite decided, as a result of this event, not only to execute Jesus but to eliminate the evidence by killing Lazarus also. One is reminded of a scene in Oscar Wilde’s play Salome, in which 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.”
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 a world which so desperately needs to hear it, a world which seems increasingly at a loss about what in fact Christian faith actually professes.
What Christian faith affirms is not some pre-modern, mythological worldview in contrast to some supposedly scientific one – as if pre-modern people really didn’t understand that people die & once dead really do tend to stay that way. What Christian faith affirms is the hope – our hope – in a God who, rather than giving up on us, can create something new – in contrast to a worldview that refuses to allow for anything actually new.
After experiencing what Jesus had done for Lazarus, many (we are told) believed in him, but others went to report him to those in authority. Jesus’ own resurrection, of which the raising of Lazarus was meant to be an advance hint, likewise challenges each one of us to respond – one way or the other.

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