Sunday, March 17, 2013

"The Teacher is here and asking for you"

The altar crucifixes, statues, and other sacred images are all veiled 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 the final phase of Lent, 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 final miracle of Jesus’ public life – miracles John’s Gospel calls “signs” because they serve to reveal Jesus and invite us to respond with faith in him. But the raising of Lazarus also had as a consequence the authorities’ decision to have Jesus executed. So life and death are mixed together in this story – 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.

As life and death are mixed in the Gospel story, so sorrow and joy are mixed in our celebration today. If the purple coverings sorrowfully look backward to Jesus’ passion and death, the festive gold and white bunting that decorates the main door of the church signals our joy at the election of a new pope and looks forward to a new moment in the mission and life of the church

The 1st Pope from the New World, the 1st from Latin America (where almost half the world's Catholics actually live), the 1st from the "Global South" (where the Church is vibrant and growing, but where the overwhelming majority of people are poor), the 1st Jesuit ever to be elected Pope, and finally the 1st Francis - it's a very long list of "firsts." Much energy will be expended in the days and weeks and months to come unpacking the larger, long-term meaning of those "firsts."

Certainly, it seems timely for a Latin American pope. What a joyful moment this is - not just for the 501 million Catholics that live in Latin America and for the Latino immigrants who are forming the future of the Church in the United States, but for the whole Church, whose universality has again been demonstrated and displayed to the world, as the first non-European in more than a millennium assumes the throne of St. Peter.

Then there is his chosen name - so evocative of the famous saint of Assisi. To his contemporaries, St. Francis of Assisi (1181-1226) seemed to personify more closely than anyone else what Jesus was about. (That identification was further confirmed in popular opinion two years before Francis's death by the unprecedented gift of the stigmata). St. Francis permanently challenges us to identify with Jesus Christ, the condemned criminal on the cross. In our affluent developed world, St. Francis permanently challenges us to hear again the Gospel Jesus preached as good news to the poor (Luke 4:18). What we know about Pope Francis' life and ministry in Argentina certainly suggests that message is close to his heart and will likely be a focus for his pontificate. St. Francis sought to fulfill the mission he received from the crucifix at San Damiano to rebuild the Church. What Francis was about was “New Evangelization” – to meet the needs of the 13th century. With St. Francis as a model, Pope Francis will now lead the Church in another “New Evangelization” – to meet the new needs of the 21st century.

Our secular culture tends to romanticize St. Francis. But his time was a troubled one – a time full of social and political problems, international conflicts, and trouble within the Church itself. St. Francis sought to revive the Church by recalling both Church and society to the basics of the Gospel’s message. That is the challenge of the “New Evangelization.” And that, of course, is what Lent – and especially this last part of Lent, traditionally known as Passion Time – is about.

So, what starts out as a story about the close human friendship between Jesus and Lazarus’ family and about an unexpected extension of Lazarus’ earthly lifespan, is intended today to focus our attention on what is fundamental  for the Christian life - our relationship, here and now, with the Risen Christ and his offer to us of a resurrection similar to Jesus’ own.

It’s certainly no accident that the conversation we just heard between Jesus and Martha was the traditional Gospel reading read for centuries at Catholic funerals.

Of course, listening in on their conversation today, we hear his one-sentence answer, “Your brother shall rise,” rather matter-of-factly. We forget that most people in the ancient world, whatever else they thought might happen to people when they die, definitely did not expect dead people to come back to life. They would have agreed with the 2nd grader I taught in 1st communion class in a Capitol Hill parish in Washington, DC, some 30 years ago, who said: “When you’re dead, you stay dead, and that’s all there is to it.”

Among 1st-century Jews, however, there was one group – the Pharisees (whose beliefs Martha apparently shared) – who believed that someday (when the Messiah came) there would be a general resurrection of all the dead.

Jesus’ answer to Martha,  I am the resurrection and the life, hinted, however, at Jesus’ own resurrection – something neither Martha nor anyone else would have yet understood, since it hadn’t happened yet and no one was expecting the Messiah to be killed or to rise from the dead ahead of everyone else.

We, however, start from Easter, from the fact that Jesus has already risen from the dead, and understand his death (and in fact his entire life) in light of that.

Lazarus was brought out of his tomb to resume an ordinary life (and eventually die again). Jesus, however, would rise out of his tomb to live forever. Bystanders had to take away the stone for Lazarus to be able to come out – still bound hand and foot. In Jesus’ case, however, no one would either have to help him out or have to untie him. Christ’s resurrected life is something altogether new and different, the decisive defeat of death and the recreation of our dying old world.

Martha’s invitation to Mary, the teacher is here and is asking for you, is addressed to all of us, who must now also address it to a world which so desperately needs to hear what Christian faith professes about our hope.

On the evening of his election, Pope Francis, before bestowing his first Urbi et Orbi Blessing, began by asking the Roman people to pray for their new Bishop. Indeed, the whole Church old world and new, north and south, unites in prayer for God's gracious benediction upon the Successor of St. Peter, as he leads the Church in sharing with the world the forever new news of Christ crucified and risen from the dead.

Homily for the Mass of the 3rd Scrutiny of the Elect, 5th Sunday of Lent, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, March 17, 2013.

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