Reflection on the Raising of Lazarus – John 11

Homily Notes for Fifth Sunday of Lent  Year A

In a time of uncertainty we become even more aware of our need for God, and for the Word of God, for just as love shapes and reshapes our hearts, so does the Word of God give flesh to our lives of faith and service.

Against the backdrop of Coronavirus, and against the new territory that it takes us into, it would be somewhat easier to go back to this familiar and well-loved story about the raising of Lazarus from the dead and then trot out phrases or insights that have served us well previously. While there is value in that approach, we could completely miss the point of what this Gospel passage had to say to us today as we find ourselves in this new place, and, therefore, requiring fresh understanding and insight.

These are uncharted waters for all of us – we all come today to the Table of the Word from different places within our hearts and from within our particular faith journeys. For all of us there will be a degree of grief as we face an unknown present and an unknown future. That is where the raising of Lazarus and the differing witness of his sisters Martha and Mary can assist our need for consolation and hope.

Bethany and the home of Lazarus and Martha and Mary was a favourite resting place for Jesus – a place where he felt at home. As Jesus makes the journey to Bethany he knows that Lazarus, ‘the one whom he loves,’ is indeed dead. He is grieving - perhaps he is also thinking of how love and death are intricately woven together? For love contains the seed of death and death the seed of love and Jesus is about to radically change our understanding of that simple truth. That does not mean everyone will understand what he is about to do, nor why. However, with the gifts of hindsight and faith, we are able to become like Martha and Mary and begin to comprehend his fundamental message, namely, that love lasts forever. Whatever comes to challenge the foundations of love in our personal or communal lives no longer destroys love, for God’s love, fully revealed in Christ, is everlasting, and endures beyond the grave. Ultimately, Jesus will give witness to this truth in his own death on the cross and in his resurrection. By raising Lazarus from the dead Jesus provides a further profound sign to the believer.

When we look at Martha and Mary, we see two different, but complementary, responses to grief. They both love Lazarus deeply and they both grieve. Martha goes to greet Jesus on the road, whereas Mary stays inside together with those who have come to console the sisters. Both of them say exactly the same words to Jesus: ‘if you had been here my brother would not have died.’

However, Martha, with her more active temperament, focuses more on the future, whereas Mary is more reflective and mindful of the present moment.
In her beautiful profession of faith: ‘Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the one coming into the world’, Martha shows just how much she has grown in her own faith journey, and in her understanding of who Jesus is, since that memorable moment in Luke’s gospel [10:38-42], when Jesus chides her for being a ‘fusspot!’
Even so, Martha’s understanding of the resurrection is focused on the last day. Jesus tells her, and ourselves, that the resurrection is here and now in the present moment, when he says: “I am the resurrection and the life.’

Immediately Martha goes to get Mary, who both continues the conversation, and makes it spiral even deeper into faith. Her starting point is the same as her sister’s: ‘If you had been here my brother would not have died.’

As she then kneels at the feet of Jesus and cries, Jesus responds by weeping. This tiny verse in the Scriptures represents the depth and beauty of the Incarnation – the Word fully becoming flesh and sharing in the very depths and potential of our humanity. When Jesus responds to Mary’s tears, with his own tears of love, we begin to see how the advent of love contains the seed of grief, which can then give birth to the seed of consolation and meaning.

This, I think, is the deeper truth that Scripture scholars and spiritual writers speak of when writing about the raising of Lazarus from the dead.
Simply put: The love that troubles us is also the love that consoles us.
And, already, we hear people speaking of the consolation they have found by facing the challenge of the Coronavirus with open and creative hearts.

When we look at the community of John, the Joannine community, for example, we readily see that they had times when they were also frightened and locked up. Like ourselves, they had to work things out on so many levels. But, as they talked, and prayed, and faced their fears, they met Jesus in a new way and they discovered a new way forward.

So it is with us today. The tears and grief we may feel, are also the tears of healing, and they lead us to meet the risen Lord in a new and deeper way.

The tears of healing, and the tears of love, can become the tears of consolation and meaning. In turn, these tears of consolation become ours, to give to others through the gifts of meaning and compassion. Whenever, and however, we meet Lazarus, in this time of the Coronavirus, we can gently, very gently, help to remove his or her bandages, so that they also can experience the consolation of love that the risen Lord gives.

Michael McCabe
Fifth Sunday of Lent
Our Lady of Kāpiti Parish
29 March 2020