Year A: Fifth Sunday of Lent

The Spiritual Strength of Love

John 11: 1-45

Now a man was ill, Lazarus from Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. Mary was the one who had anointed the Lord with perfumed oil and dried his feet with her hair; it was her brother Lazarus who was ill. So the sisters sent word to him, saying, “Master, the one you love is ill.” When Jesus heard this he said, “This illness is not to end in death, but is for the glory of God, that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So when he heard that he was ill, he remained for two days in the place where he was. Then after this he said to his disciples, “Let us go back to Judea.” The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just trying to stone you, and you want to go back there?” Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours in a day? If one walks during the day, he does not stumble, because he sees the light of this world. But if one walks at night, he stumbles, because the light is not in him.” He said this, and then told them, “Our friend Lazarus is asleep, but I am going to awaken him.” So the disciples said to him, “Master, if he is asleep, he will be saved.” But Jesus was talking about his death, while they thought that he meant ordinary sleep. So then Jesus said to them clearly, “Lazarus has died. And I am glad for you that I was not there, that you may believe. Let us go to him.” So Thomas, called Didymus, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go to die with him.”

When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, only about two miles away. And many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to comfort them about their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went to meet him; but Mary sat at home. Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. [But] even now I know that whatever you ask of God, God will give you.” Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise.” Martha said to him, “I know he will rise, in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus told her, “I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord. I have come to believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one who is coming into the world.”

When she had said this, she went and called her sister Mary secretly, saying, “The teacher is here and is asking for you.” As soon as she heard this, she rose quickly and went to him. For Jesus had not yet come into the village but was still where Martha had met him. So when the Jews who were with her in the house comforting her saw Mary get up quickly and go out, they followed her, presuming that she was going to the tomb to weep there. When Mary came to where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” When Jesus saw her weeping and the Jews who had come with her weeping, he became perturbed and deeply troubled, and said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Sir, come and see.” And Jesus wept. So the Jews said, “See how he loved him.” But some of them said, “Could not the one who opened the eyes of the blind man have done something so that this man would not have died?”

So Jesus, perturbed again, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone lay across it. Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the dead man’s sister, said to him, “Lord, by now there will be a stench; he has been dead for four days.” Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believe you will see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone. And Jesus raised his eyes and said, “Father, I thank you for hearing me. I know that you always hear me; but because of the crowd here I have said this, that they may believe that you sent me.” And when he had said this, he cried out in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, tied hand and foot with burial bands, and his face was wrapped in a cloth. So Jesus said to them, “Untie him and let him go.”

Now many of the Jews who had come to Mary and seen what he had done began to believe in him.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Have you ever walked with someone to his or her death? Did you feel Christ’s presence at this time or since? Explain how.
  2. Have you come to believe that Jesus is “the Christ, the Son of God who is coming into the world”? Why do you believe this? What experiences have you had that reinforce this belief?
  3. Does Jesus’ reaction and response to the death of Lazarus help you to realize the consolation of “love is stronger than death” that He will not let go of you either?

Biblical Context

John 11: 1-45
Sr. Mary M. McGlone CSJ

The raising of Lazarus is the last of Jesus’ signs in John’s Gospel and the last of the signs we will contemplate during Lent. Surprisingly, the actual miracle of raising the dead man takes up only seven of the 45 verses of this passage. Instead of spotlighting Jesus as the miracle worker, John invites us to situate ourselves with the disciples as they grapple with Jesus’ self-revelation in word and deed. We can both learn from and be comforted by their feeble understanding and growing commitment to Jesus.

We begin with the disciples who have escaped Jerusalem with Jesus because his enemies were ready to stone him. A few days after hearing of Lazarus’ illness, Jesus decided to go to Bethany, just when everyone assumed it was too late to do more than mourn. Evaluating the circumstances, Thomas speaks out as the master of practicality: “You want to go to Judea? Back there? Now? Do you recall your last visit?” Of course Jesus’ response took the question to an entirely different level of meaning.

First of all, indicating that his own time was limited, he explained to the disciples that they had to work while it was still possible. His “day” had 12 “hours” and they were not all used up. As far as the disciples were concerned, Jesus wanted them to understand that they could walk in his light and not fall apart. In fact, walking in his light meant that his light would be in them, independent of the rising and setting of the sun or even his physical presence. Then reprising a theme he had used in regard to the man born blind (John 9), Jesus reminded them that Lazarus’ death, something they perceived as the result of sin or an irreversible tragedy, was actually the setting for a revelation of God’s glory. He even said it was good that he hadn’t been there because they needed to understand that his work had to do with transforming the human condition, not simply curing disease. This served as a gentle introduction to help them understand his passion as glory.

Thomas replied by calling the disciples to what was probably the best they could offer at the moment: “Let us also go to die with him.” In this, Thomas, called Didymus, was acting as the identical twin to all who are called to grow in faith; he demonstrated that his loyalty went far beyond his comprehension. He didn’t understand that Jesus’ “hour” would bring glory or that Lazarus’ death would bring a deeper revelation of who Jesus was, but Thomas had enough love to be willing to stand with Jesus in spite of obvious danger. That was an expression of faith, not in a theological or even intellectual sense, but in a much more concrete way, saying in effect, “I have no idea where it is leading, but I trust you more than anyone or anything else, so I will remain with you.” This is a parallel to Peter’s proclamation: “Master, to whom shall we go? You alone have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68). So with fearful faith, they accompany Jesus to Bethany.

Martha’s conversation with Jesus takes the exploration of faith a few steps farther. First she recognizes him as a healer — although she reminds him that in that capacity he arrived too late to do much good. She follows her complaint with the ambiguous statement: “Whatever you ask of God, God will give you.” When Jesus replies “Your brother will rise again,” Martha hears the sort of cliché frequently offered to people who are grieving; it’s effectively a call to ignore real anguish and take a “spiritual view” that discounts the hole in the heart of the bereaved. But that’s hardly the intent of Jesus for whom this moment was so perturbing and troubling that he wept openly.

Far from being a platitude, Jesus’ assurance that Lazarus would rise was the prelude to an “I am” statement: Jesus’ declaration that he is the resurrection and the life. As with all of those statements, Jesus reveals who he is in order to explain what that means for others. He offers Martha a paradoxical proverb contrasting the ordinary and deep meanings of life and death. In the first half Jesus says that belief in him vitiates ordinary death and gives real life. In the second he adds that belief in him transforms ordinary life such that it is no longer subject to mortal limitation.

Jesus asks if Martha believes, and she responds that she believes he is the Christ. She doesn’t say she understands it, just that she believes. So, Jesus takes her one step farther, he takes her to face the grave. Raising Lazarus becomes the sign that in him, death has no power. Believing in Jesus, walking with him with more trust than understanding, is the journey of discipleship, the route of living in the light of Christ, the resurrection and the life.

Causing and Consoling Grief

Spiritual Reflection
John Shea

It was a full five years after my father’s death. I was driving across Alligator Alley in southern Florida, traveling from Naples on the west coast to Boca Raton on the east coast. I was going to my parents’ condominium. My mother was going to sell it the next day.

As I drove, I began to think of my father. Suddenly, I began to cry and I could not stop. I cried so effusively and unrelentingly that I had to stop at a rest station and change my shirt.

When I resumed driving, I thought it was over. Only it started again, and I was powerless in its grip. When I arrived at my mother’s condo, I had to change my shirt a second time.

I told my mother what happened. She simply said, “Oh, you’ll have days like that. Grief is a wild ride. People may map its faces, predict its stages, and schedule its duration. But those are people who, for the moment, are not in grief. They have the luxury of observation. But when the loss of a loved one inhabits your soul resistance is futile.

That is why I like this emotionally troubled, weeping Jesus being swept toward the tomb of the one he loves. It is his love that is causing him the grief, just as it is the love of Martha and Mary that is causing them their grief. If Jesus had not loved Lazarus and his sisters, he would have been unmoved but philosophically interested at best. We are all eager for love. But as a distraught young widow once said to me, “Someone should have told me that all marriages end either in divorce or death.” The truth of eternally grounded people trafficking in time is: the deeper the love, the deeper the grief.

This is a truth we seldom think about when we give our heart away. In the temporary, perishing world we all inhabit, the advent of love is the seed of grief. Gabriel Marcel said, “To love someone is to say, ‘Thou, thou shalt not die.'” Even if we do not say it aloud, even if we only whisper it in the cellar of the heart, love readies us for weeping. Our first kiss and our first tear are linked.

However, this same love that causes our grief can console us. But we must trust the love and follow it to its root. We must not see it as a futile rebellion against mortality but as a hint that there is more, more than meets the eye and more than conventional knowledge will admit. This love that makes us accompany the ill and even visit their graves after they die may be showing us something of God’s love. Our reluctance to let people go may touch upon the truth of Lazarus’ resuscitation. The love that troubles Jesus and makes him weep at the loss of Lazarus also makes him go after Lazarus and free him from the imprisonment of death. The love of God in Jesus will not let Lazarus go, and so death has to release him. The love that causes our grief is, at root, the love that consoles our grief.

Consolation ultimately comes from realizing love is stronger than death (cf. Song 8:6). This is not an easy realization to embrace. As Martha knew, the stench of death is strong. Sometimes our minds focus on the unyielding fact of physical death and we speculate about how some form of continued existence is possible. However, the story suggests another way to proceed.

Jesus is “the resurrection and the life,” and those who can enter into him can participate in eternal life now. In this relationship with Jesus we find that the love of God that sustains and raises people is an intimate presence at the center of our own identity. The more we contemplate this presence (Mary) and integrate it into our lives (Martha), the more we realize its gentleness is an enduring strength. Sustained by this presence, we can grieve greatly the physical loss of our friends and hope greatly for their continued life in God. Love generates both grief and consolation. As St. Paul said, “do not grieve as others do who have no hope” (1 Thess 4:13). I assume he meant we should grieve as those who have hope. It is the weeping Jesus who cries out in a loud voice ‘Lazarus, come out!’

Spiritual Commentaries and Teachings are excerpted from The Spiritual Wisdom of the Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers by John Shea © 2004 by Order of Saint Benedict. Published by Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota. Used with permission.