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Sunday, 10 April 2011

Fifth Sunday of Lent (A)
(Ezekiel 37:12-14; St. Paul to the Romans 8:8-11; John 11:1-45)

In our Gospel reading we heard that, although Lazarus’ sisters, Martha and Mary, had sent Jesus a note telling Him of their brother's serious illness, nevertheless, Jesus had remained where He was for two days, with the result that He only arrived at their home some four days after Lazarus’ body had already been put in the tomb and was then expected to be smelling of corruption.  Jesus had, therefore, very deliberately kept away until there could be no possible doubt that Lazarus was dead.  Why?  Obviously He had some reason, and, equally obviously, that reason had to be an extremely important one, able to balance, so to speak,  both the loss of Lazarus and the grief of Martha and Mary.  Let us therefore try to understand something of the issues Jesus had to face and resolve.
The Jewish people had been prepared over two thousand years to hope, long, and pray, for the coming of their Messiah, and Jesus – the Eternal Word of God born of the Virgin Mary in answer to, and fulfilment of, those prayers -- was having to prepare His disciples for His own forthcoming death. He needed to deepen their hope so that, though He were to die and be physically removed from their presence, nevertheless, they would still be aware of His spiritual closeness to them, able to appreciate His enduring oneness with them from beyond the grave in the glory of His heavenly Father.  It was absolutely essential that they should have such hope in Him beyond death, because, just as Israel of old had hoped and prayed for His first coming as Messiah, so the Church, the new People of God, might be uniquely empowered and enabled, in this sinful world, to hope and pray for His ever-present help in the building up of God’s Kingdom among men in preparation for His ultimate and glorious return as Lord of all creation and Judge of mankind. If their faith in Jesus were to flower into divine charity, it had to be sustained and nourished by such an imperishable hope preparing them to fittingly receive and embrace the coming of the Holy Spirit; and for that end Jesus behaved as we have heard, in order to instil and root this hope-over-and-beyond-death into the hearts and minds of His disciples.  This work of Jesus -- His apparently gross neglect of dear friends – was, therefore, an essential part of His preparation of His disciples, and indeed Lazarus, Martha, and Mary themselves, for their future proclamation of the Good News of Jesus to the Jewish people and to the whole world.
Jesus said to (Martha), "I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live, and whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die.  Do you believe this?" 
Notice that Jesus does not simply say that He has power over life and death as the miracle of bringing Lazarus back to life would show.  That power, as I have just said, needed to be shared with and implanted in His future apostles, and therefore He declared:
I am (that is, eternally) the resurrection and the life.
The fact that Jesus deliberately allowed Lazarus to die and his sisters to suffer without comfort from Himself, even though it was His intention to bring Lazarus back to life again when the time was right, must surely tell us something about the question that inevitably troubles many Christians: why is suffering – apparently, at times, both meaningless and purposeless – still so prominent in the lives of good Christian people?
Jesus’ own death was close at hand; had He not prepared His disciples to hope beyond death, they could not have understood His subsequent Resurrection; His Holy Spirit could not, therefore, have been sent into such closed hearts and uncomprehending minds; nor would His Gospel ever have been proclaimed as the Good News for all mankind. 
In fact, though, because of the indisputable death and the manifestly public raising of Lazarus from the tomb, an appreciation of the ultimate purpose, meaning, and significance of Jesus’ own life, death, and resurrection, was being prepared: here Jesus’ disciples could begin to appreciate Him as the Lord of LIFE in its fullest meaning: life that begins with the cradle, endures through death, and blossoms into eternity:
I am the resurrection and the life.
Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.  (Matt 28:20)
The suffering of Martha and Mary was their share in the forthcoming Passion and Death of Jesus, a sharing that would help His supreme purpose of giving glory to His Father and winning salvation for mankind.  The phrase, ‘offer it up with Jesus’, used to be commonplace and at times almost trite, but its sublime meaning and significance can be learnt from the sufferings which Jesus willed for Lazarus and his sisters.
            I am the resurrection and the life.
Jesus said this because, henceforth, those who would believe in Him, those in whom His Spirit could thereby make His home, as St. Paul said, would never die the death of fallen mankind, because Jesus, dwelling in them through His Spirit, is eternally, both in Himself and for them, the resurrection and the life.  Therefore He went on to say to Martha:
            Whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die;
because His eternal, resurrection, life would always be open and responsive to their prayers.
Having entered the world through human sinfulness, death could neither claim nor hold Jesus the Holy One of God.  Jesus chose to die on our behalf, for our sins, in order that when death was unable to hold Him -- the resurrection and the life -- His rising to life again would mean the destruction of death’s power and the opportunity for all who would henceforth live by faith in Jesus, to receive His Spirit and thereby be prepared to share in His victory over death and share in His blessedness in heaven.
I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live; and whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die. Do you believe this?
We belong to Jesus through faith, therefore the only question for those who turn to Him is “do I believe in Jesus' words firmly enough to hope in Him through and beyond death?” 
Don't imagine that such a hope is impossible or foolish.   Listen to St. Paul again:
Those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh.
Pleasure, pride and power, seem to offer something new, something fresh, something untried, to those who are young enough, foolish enough, or evil enough, to become hooked on them; and those who have grown old in such addictions  can frequently be found still cherishing their addiction despite the fact that -- with death coming ever closer -- it can afford them neither comfort nor security, still petulantly trying to cling to a power and authority they are far too frail to exercise any longer.   Likewise, those who delight in the flesh never give up hoping for further pleasure no matter how old and ugly they may have become: they still cling to pleasures even though the memory of such things is being gradually smothered by the ever-increasing pains of an approaching, sinful, and culpable death.
Such radical and ultimate frustration, however, was no part of God’s original plan for human kind, and therefore there are other people, many other people who, as St. Paul tells us, are continually being made more authentic and more fulfilled as human beings by their faith in Jesus:
Live according to the Spirit (and) set (your) minds on the things of the Spirit.
Yes, People of God, we servants of the Lord, are called to learn from today’s Gospel to root our lives in Christian hope, hope in Him Whose promises are unfailing and eternal.  No matter what the situation may be, hope in the Lord, for He is able and willing to help and to save no matter what our difficulties might be; and if Jesus does will some of His servants to suffer, it is always an invitation to share more closely with Him in His work of salvation.  Even though He seems to delay, as indeed was the case for Martha and Mary on the death of their brother Lazarus, even His apparent absence is for our greater good: He is forming us more and more in His own likeness, so that we  too might -- in Him and with Him – overcome, not only the world and its blandishments, but also Satan together with all His principalities and powers who vaunt themselves over fallen mankind with the threat of death; and so that we too might be able to rejoice ever more fully in His heavenly glory.  For, the death of a true believer in Jesus in whom the Spirit of God has made His home, is not like the anxious, painful, parting, death of the sinner; rather it is filled with hope and joyous expectation which Jesus Himself expressed on hearing of Lazarus' passing away:
            This sleep is not to end in death, but (will be) for the glory of God.
Jesus shared our death, and by His dying He destroyed the dark shroud of suffering and sorrow which enveloped it.  In His rising He offers us the glorious hope of sharing, with Him, in the life and blessedness of heaven: a sharing which will fulfil beyond all measure our deepest longings and aspirations, a sharing whereby heaven will be our dearest home, and God's presence, the embrace of the One Who is our truest Father. 
People of God what makes you a true disciple of Jesus is not so much whether you keep the rules but whether you have the Spirit, as St. Paul said:
            Unless you possess the Spirit of Christ you do not belong to Him.
And we can only possess the Spirit if we allow Him to possess us, by allowing Him to make His home in us and direct our ways.  Therefore, when Jesus, Who is the resurrection and the life, says to us, as He did to Martha:
He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe these things? …
then, we must let the Spirit within us give answer, and, setting our minds on the things of the Spirit, reply wholeheartedly with Martha:                            
Yes, Lord, I believe that You are the Christ, the Son of God.
Faith, hope, and charity, are, as you well know, the three theological virtues, and -- as St. Paul tells us -- the greatest of these is charity because charity persists and flowers in heaven.  But here on earth we cannot practice charity without confessing faith and cherishing hope, because it is faith that determines Who we love, and it is hope that enables us to persevere and grow in loving with Charity.
            I am the resurrection and the life:
by faith we confess the divinity of Jesus contained in those two words, “I am”; by hope we embrace the promise He offers us when He speaks of “the resurrection and the life”; and by the grace of the Holy Spirit we grow in the supreme virtue of charity as we try to live our life on earth in response to and accordance with the light of that enduring confession and the confidence of that unshakeable hope.