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.
- What does Jesus’ reaction and response to the death of Lazarus help you to realize?
- Where have you experienced moments of death and resurrection in your life?
- How do you experience Jesus the Christ, as one who is still “coming into the world”?
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.
It has been almost six months since our son’s death. Sometimes it seems a lot longer than six months, other times it feels like it’s been only five minutes. A week ago, I was driving along 84-West on my way to a meeting, and I began to think of my son. Suddenly I started to cry and could not stop, I completely lost it. I had to pull over to the side of the road because my tears were making it difficult for me to see, the pain was overwhelming me. These days, I seem to have collected a number of discreet places to use as private “grieving stops”, places that were always there, but went unnoticed in my regular patterns of travel. If we open to it, grief has a way of making us see differently and begin to notice things we may be passing by every day.
In today’s Gospel Mary and Martha have suffered the loss of their brother. Their grief is overwhelming and it engulfs Jesus as well, so much so that he is moved to tears over the loss of their brother and his friend. Jesus is so troubled the depth of his love causes his grief to move him into action. In this moment his heart is so big it overflows in love. It is the ultimate miracle and gift given before his own resurrection. Who could not help but love this gospel?
That said, I can’t help thinking that Jesus did not perform these wonderful acts to turn us into a people who are addicted to miracles. I could easily say like Mary “Lord, if you had been there, my son would not have died.” But, I know he was there, and is with each of us in the wide range of deaths we suffer in this lifetime. For this reason, I keep returning to the image of Jesus weeping. It is holding more consolation, and healing for me right now then the miracle of Lazarus’ resurrection.
Recently during a conversation my attention was drawn to the image of the Sacred Heart. A crown of thorns wrapped around the heart of Christ has taken on a new depth of meaning for me because my own heart is hurting. I’m learning. It is hard to see these two opposite images combined as one, pain and love wrapped up together. It says a lot about the relationship between love and grief, and the depth of God’s love for us. The deeper the love, the deeper the grief. The reality that God loves each of us so deeply, he would willingly join the human experience of loss, grief, and death, not only at a point in history but whenever we are enduring them, is a humbling feeling to absorb. “Jesus wept”
During this season of Lent, we traditionally journey with Jesus in His suffering, to His cross. But, lately my experience with suffering and grief is reminding me that we are also invited to journey more deeply in taking up our own crosses. I don’t like this part. But, I think when we can tune to this, our hearts begin to expand for others as Jesus’ did for Lazarus. That may be miracle enough.
Grief touches each of us throughout life. It is not a competition, or something we should casually set aside by comparing our grief in levels of severity to the grief of others. If we are fortunate, we may get by in life without a tragedy, but when we ignore our experiences of suffering however great or small, we ignore the cross and the invitation to follow the very God we profess to believe in. Lately I’m getting schooled by life in the importance of “soulful suffering”, it’s not fun but it’s necessary. As human beings we may consciously, or often unconsciously try to avoid the pain of our own transformation, but we cannot ignore the suffering that leads to it.
I believe in resurrection, and I’m hoping I can recognize more of it in the days ahead. We experience resurrection when others grieve with us in our suffering. The poet Paul Claudel said, “Jesus did not come to explain away suffering or remove it, he came to fill it with his presence”. I believe in resurrection, but for now I will have to be content with seeing “the glory of God” in the many acts of compassion and kindness that are flowing my way from so many friends as grief continues to unfold. The invitations to a cup of coffee or a meal, the phone calls and messages asking how we are doing, or a comforting hand on my shoulder with no words spoken. All are moments of resurrection that are healing and leave me wondering, who might need this from me today? This is how Jesus unties us from death and lets us go free.
But most of all, I am lifted in knowing that Jesus is so moved by my loss that he wept for me. And, whenever I need to pull over to cry, it is Jesus crying within me. What more could we ask for?
Bob Saraceni is the Men’s Ministry Development Leader