Fifth Sunday of Lent, Year A
(Ezekiel 37:12-14; St. Paul to the Romans 8:8-11; St. John’s Gospel 11:1-45)
Today’s Gospel, dear People of God, is both dramatic and deeply consoling, revealing Jesus to us in the awesomeness of His divine power and the tenderness of His compassionate humanity, and also -- most wonderfully -- in the ineffable beauty of His Personal commitment to and communion with His heavenly Father. That St. John was well aware of all this is shown by the fact that the raising of Lazarus is the last of Jesus’ miracles in his Gospel and, as such, is of supreme significance in itself and worthy of our closest attention.
First of all we should note that the intention of Jesus to establish, confirm, and fulfil faith is paramount in all aspects of the Gospel account:
Jesus said to (His disciples) clearly, “Lazarus has died, and I am glad for you that I was not there, that you may believe. Let us go to him.”
Jesus told Martha, “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?”
Martha 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.”
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.”
Six times Jesus uses or calls forth the word ‘believe’ in our short Gospel passage, before St. John himself ultimately tells us:
Now many of the Jews who had come to Mary and seen what He had done began to believe in Him.
All is indeed directed towards faith, first of all in Jesus’ chosen disciples upon whom and through whom He will build His future Church, and then, in those very dear friends of His, Martha and Mary and their brother Lazarus, whose home in the village of Bethany was ever open to Him and, when needed, served as a place of refuge for Him and a blessing for them; as when, for example, after His triumphal entry into Jerusalem, He left the city, its fickle crowds, and the ever more insistent criticisms and threatening plots of the Pharisees and Temple authorities:
“Do you hear what they are saying?” Jesus answered them, “Yes; and have you never read the text, ‘Out of the mouths of infants and nurslings you have brought forth praise’?” And leaving them, He went out of the city to Bethany, and there He spent the night. (Matthew 21:16-17)
All is directed towards faith in the Person of Jesus, here revealing Himself in the full beauty of His humanity and in the divine majesty of the miracle He was about to perform for His friends: a miracle which would perfectly foreshadow His decisive victory over Satan in the cosmic conflict even now raging around Him and threatening an imminent climax – the supreme and totally conclusive climax indeed, though not yet the ultimate confrontation -- in the holy city of Jerusalem, so near and dear, yet become so threatening and unworthy.
Jesus reveals not just the reality of His human nature, but, as I said, its beauty and perfection in the profound depth of His fellow-feeling and understanding, and the humble tenderness of His sensitivity and compassion:
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 (Himself) wept.
And this He did in no foppish manner, for in line with the Vulgate translation we learn that when He saw their weeping:
Jesus became perturbed -- not just upset, not merely distressed, but with a certain mixture of anger and indignation -- and deeply troubled.
It was in pursuance of such indignation that He asked to be shown the place where Lazarus had been placed that there He might make manifest His determination to overthrow the abusive power of Satan in the human lives of all who would believe in Him and learn to walk in His ways.
So Jesus 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.
It is not easy to assess just what Martha believed about Jesus; as you have seen she did most certainly believe in Him, but somehow she seems always to have had too much to do, too much to say, to keep in mind, for such belief to slow her down, let alone ‘stop her in her tracks’. Perhaps her relationship with Jesus was one of religious admiration befitting a traditional prophet figure or miracle worker, with perhaps a touch of personal ‘affection’; a loosely-bound or somewhat independent relationship, rather than a fully humble self-demission before One Who was awesome not only in His power but most of all in the mystery of His Person; a humbling akin to the commitment of discipleship and conducive to an instinctive and sympathetic understanding and appreciation, and perhaps even to worship. Martha would do anything for Jesus, but she was not one to sit down and listen intently at the feet of Jesus; and anyhow, everybody knew that only the God of Israel could give bring the dead back to life. Thus, she most probably expressed the thoughts of all the visiting Jews present when she exclaimed, ‘Lord, by now there will be a stench; he has been dead for four days.’
To that Jesus replied, somewhat reprovingly indeed, but again and above all, mysteriously:
Did I not tell you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?
Martha's ‘belief’ needed to be both deepened and purified; for the moment, though, her undoubted commitment would allow her to see something of that glory as she managed to humble herself and patiently look to, and wait for, Jesus.
Saint Paul gives us a clue to the nature of that glory of God she was about to witness when he wrote to his converts at Corinth:
God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to bring to light the knowledge of the glory of God on the face of (Jesus the) Christ. (2 Corinthians 4:6)
And indeed, what beauty, what glory, was now to be seen on the face of Jesus as He:
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.”
Jesus had undoubtedly spoken to Martha of the glory to be made manifest by the life-giving, life-restoring, miracle He was now about to perform when:
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.”
Nevertheless, we are surely not erring if, in this case, we allow ourselves to think that the glory visible on Jesus’ up-turned face and which we can still find reflected in His prayer, the glory expressive of the wondrous beauty of Jesus’ total oneness with and undying presence to His Father; the glory of His absolute selflessness, seeking not His own will, His own renown, but that of His Father, as expressed in those words, that they may believe that You sent Me; the glory of His unconditional obedience to and love for His Father; all this is, surely, even yet more glorious than the truly divine power so splendidly manifested when Lazarus came out -- still wearing all his burial bands -- from the tomb where he had lain for four days. And again, dear friends, notice that, as we began so here at the end, all is entered upon and carried through to fulfilment, for love of His Father and of us: That they may believe.
‘Believe’ what? Jesus had told His disciples on His first hearing of Lazarus’ death:
I am glad for you that I was not there, that you may believe. Let us go to him.
That is further clarified when, standing before the tomb of Lazarus and surrounded by the accompanying crowd, Jesus prayed:
Father, I thank You for hearing Me … because of the crowd here I have said this, that they may believe that You sent Me.”
Belief in Jesus as the One sent by the Father; that is the kernel of our faith in, and the true glory of, the Son of Man. He is God the Son become flesh of the Virgin by the Holy Spirit; and His glory on earth lies in the self-sacrificing love of His proclamation and manifestation of the ultimate Glory of the eternal God: the sublime oneness and goodness of the most Holy Trinity, Father and Son -- begetting and begotten -- in the unity of the Most Holy Spirit of Truth and Love.
Dear People of God, we are most surely meant to draw strength for our faith, consolation, comfort and joy, for our heart, as we ponder today’s readings. For, in the difficulties and griefs, in the temptations and trials, of living and dying, the most important question we will all have to answer sometime is, ‘Do you trust in My love, do you believe in My power, to save you?’ And if in such a moment of crisis we can say with Martha, ‘Yes Lord, I believe’; if indeed, with Mary, we can trustfully allow any stone partially blocking the ready entrance to our heart to be fully rolled away and thus -- despite any fear, great or small, of what might be hidden there -- leaving the way to our innermost being opened up wide to the saving power and healing love of Jesus, then, undoubtedly, we shall, as Jesus promised, see the glory of God.