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Sunday 5 of Lent, Year A: Lazarus, here! Come forth!

This page from the Gospel of St. John can’t not fill us with immense hope. Over the past ten days or so, here in our parish, no less than four families and all their relatives and friends, have been going through the sadness and distress caused by the death of a loved one.

All of us, at different times in our lives, have experienced the same. So, many of the things we hear about in the Gospel today are very familiar. Martha and Mary are devastated at the loss of their brother, presumably a relatively young man. There’s a tinge of bitterness in their words to Jesus, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died”, almost as if they were saying, “why did you let him die?” There are the tears, the mourners and well-wishers who come round to their house and are ready to go with them to the grave of Lazarus. I suppose there would also have been the reminiscing about Lazarus, his character his human quirks, the catching up between relatives and friends.

But into the midst of all this so very human situation there comes Jesus. He is always there when people believe in him, especially at the hour of death. In one of the psalms it says, “O precious in the eyes of the Lord is the death of his faithful.” We are precious to him and death offends him, for he did not create us, his precious ones, to die. Death comes from the Devil’s envy and from man’s own misuse of freedom. Jesus weeps at the death of Lazarus whom he loved, but he loves us all and so he weeps at the death of us all. He weeps out of his beautiful and sensitive humanity. He weeps from his divine and Sacred Heart that death has its way with all flesh.

His sorrow is not, however, empty or sterile. He is not just a mourner, however sincere. The sorrow of God for our death comes from the joy of God for our life, and since his joy in us is so great, his sorrow for our death is also great. Moved with compassion, God comes to take on our death and to duel with it. He took on our mortal flesh so that in it he could defeat death. And he does that by annihilating the Devil’s envy and man’s abuse of his freedom, which we call sin. St. Paul says that, although divine, Jesus was not jealous of his condition as divine, unlike the Devil who was jealous of God, and of us. Jesus emptied himself to become man, proving that to be divine is not about a power grab but about self-giving, about loving even unto death. And as man, Jesus did not abuse his freedom but brought it to its highest expression in obedience to the Father. It is not the jealousy of Satan which has the power to give life, but the humble selflessness of Christ. It is not disobedience or self-rule which sets man free, but obedience to the rule of God as nature itself obeys its Creator.

Just before Jesus calls Lazarus from the tomb, he prays: “Father, I thank you for hearing my prayer. I knew indeed that you always hear me, but I speak for the sake of all those who stand around me, so that they may believe it was you who sent me.” When he had said this, he cried out in a loud voice, “Lazarus, here! Come out!” In other words, Jesus obediently asks the Father to give him permission to raise Lazarus, and in the power of his humble love for Lazarus, he sets him free from the bonds of death. He wrests Lazarus from Satan’s jealousy.

It must have been absolutely astonishing for all those standing around him to witness this. People would be incredulous, but they could not deny Lazarus had been dead for four days. Jesus deliberately waited this length of time to make this momentous sign impossible to refute. No amount of cynicism could contradict the fact that by the word of Jesus a dead man was raised to life. The only reasonable reaction is then to shift your eyes from the spectacle of Lazarus walking out of the tomb to Jesus. The only reasonable conclusion to draw is that Jesus has power over death and power over those who have died. And it is a life-giving power, a power which restores someone to the communion of those they love and ultimately to restore them to the One whose love created them from the beginning to live for ever, God himself.

As with all the signs he worked, Jesus wishes to draw those who witness them to believe in him. The centre of this Gospel is not Lazarus who rose again to a mortal life from which he would again die, but Jesus who is the resurrection and the life, the giver of eternal life. It is this eternal life which he would once more breathe into us as the result of his own death and resurrection. As for Lazarus, his resurrection to eternal life is yet to take place, along with us.

Our relatives and friends who have died believing in Jesus, or who possibly never received the gift of faith but have sought God indirectly with a sincere heart are, like Lazarus, subject to the resurrection and the life, that is, to Jesus. In the desperation of our pain at losing a loved one we might cry out, “why not do for my loved one what you did for Lazarus, and give him back to me?” That is so human a cry, and a testament to the love we have for our dead. Yet, Jesus, who loves our departed and us more than we ever could, will not give them back to us in this life. This life is not their or our destiny. We cannot cling forever to this life or to our loved ones in this life, for this life is of its nature mortal. Jesus has prepared something far greater for them and for us, something in which they already share and yet something which will only appear in its fullness at the final and general resurrection of all the dead. That will be the day on which Christ returns in glory, on which death and hell are tread underfoot for ever and on which the full company of those who have believed in Christ and done good in their lives will rise again in the flesh to enter definitively into the Kingdom of heaven.

That those who have died believing in Christ are with Christ is our faith, but there is something in today’s Gospel which corroborates that faith. Lazarus was dead, his soul separated from his body, so how did he hear the voice of Jesus? Where was his spirit such that it knew to obey Christ and return to the body? Surely the answer is in the words of Jesus, “Father, I thank you for hearing my prayer.” What prayer? The prayer Jesus must have been making to ask the Father to allow Jesus to restore Lazarus to human life so that Jesus’ own glory as Son of God might be revealed to those who witnessed it. Lazarus was with the Father after he died. Since Jesus lived in constant union with the Father, Jesus too in the Holy Spirit was in union with Lazarus. It is the same for our loved ones who have believed and lived good lives. They are quite simply with the Father and the Son in the Holy Spirit. They are with God. And to the degree that we live in union with God, we are still in a deep spiritual bond with our departed.

We have Jesus to thank for this. Had he not been born, suffered, died and risen, we would quite simply have no hope of eternal life, of seeing our loved ones again or of being part of that as yet unknown and marvellous world of the future which God has in store for those who trust him. A final thought. When King David’s son by Bathsheeba died, he got up from the ground where he had been fasting and washed, ate and drank. Quizzed by his advisors as to why he appeared to be celebrating the child’s death, David answered: “My son will not return to me, but I will go to him.” Our loved ones will not return to us, but we will go to them. For of the two places to be, in this life or in the next, it is in the next that every human being will know what true life really is, in everlasting union with their loved ones and with Christ, the Resurrection and the Life, our Lord, our God and our All.

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