by Brother Julian McDonald cfc
“I will put my breath in them, bring them back to life and let them live in their own land.” Ezekiel 37: 12-14
“Jesus said: ‘Take away the stone.’ Martha said to him: ‘Lord, by now he’ll smell; this is the fourth day.’ …Then Jesus cried out loudly: ‘Lazarus, here! Come out!’ …Jesus said to them: ‘Unbind him, let him go free.’” John 11: 1-45
All three of today’s readings turn their attention to the promise of resurrected life extended to all who put their faith in God and God’s Son, Jesus Christ. Ezekiel presents the story of the revivification of the dry bones – a parable about Israel’s resurrection as a nation. In the second reading from Romans, Paul assures all who trust that God’s Spirit is alive in them that God will raise them to eternal life in the same way as he raised up Jesus from the grave. The gospel-reading not only gives us John’s account of Jesus raising Lazarus from the tomb but challenges us to become agents of resurrection in our own lives and in the lives of those around us.
We cannot read the story of Lazarus without reflecting, at least in passing, on the certainty that we, too, will die. But when, where and how, we know not. Still, we human beings together spend billions of dollars annually on our efforts to live as long as possible. We buy products that promise to keep us looking youthful. We hire personal trainers, and exercise in gyms to keep our bodies slim and flexible. Deep down it seems that the fear of dying is a strong motivator. Yet, Tolstoy asserted that anyone over thirty-five who doesn’t give a lot of thought to dying is a fool, and, in contrast, the Anglo-American novelist, Susan Ertz observed: “Millions long for immortality who don’t know what to do on a rainy, Sunday afternoon.”
But, while, in the course of the gospel-reading, Jesus reiterated to Martha (and to all of us) his promise of resurrection, the response Martha gave was a safe one, without being an expression of resounding confidence. Her response prods me to consider my response. The question from Jesus hangs there for all of us to answer. What’s more, it follows what is arguably the farthest-reaching, most powerful and most hope-filled promise attributed to Jesus by John in his Gospel: “I am the resurrection and the life: whoever believes in me, though she/he should die, will come to life; and whoever is alive and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” (John 11: 25-26) The mere formulation of my authentic response will tell me a lot about the strength or weakness of my faith commitment to Jesus.
While the focus of today’s gospel-reading is the actual account of the raising of Lazarus with its revelation of God’s power working through Jesus to overcome death and renew life, there are other significant aspects of the story equally worthy of our consideration. For example, Jesus utters three commands: “Take away the stone.” “Lazarus here, come out!” and “Unbind him and let him go free.”
Martha’s warning of the distinct possibility of a very unpleasant stench demonstrates her practicality. Jesus, however, invites a different possibility. Nobody opens a tomb merely to find a decaying body. By directing the tomb to be opened, Jesus was implying that there was a brighter possibility behind the initial stench. Implicit in that action is an invitation for all of us to admit that even in the most unpleasant experiences of our lives are yet undetected possibilities for good. The emergence of Lazarus from the tomb in response to Jesus’ next command was testimony to Jesus’ power over life and death. But the miracle came to its full conclusion only after Jesus engaged those gathered around to participate in setting Lazarus completely free.
Lent as a whole, and this gospel-reading in particular, hold God’s invitation to us to emerge from the metaphorical tombs in which we find ourselves locked because of our own decisions or through circumstances imposed on us. We can trap ourselves with addictions to things like gambling, junk-food, complaining, criticising others, pessimism, guilt. In addition, as members of the wider community of Christians we are invited by Jesus to work to free our sisters and brothers who are bound by social injustices like blocked access to clean water, insufficient opportunities for education and employment, and insufficient relief to deal with the natural disasters of fire, flood, earthquake and famine. Then there are those forced to flee their homeland because of war, persecution and terrorism. How might we assist them?
There is deep irony in the fact that the continuation of this gospel-reading records how Caiaphas proposed a plan to dispatch Jesus. Jesus was to be murdered for bringing Lazarus back to life. Speaking to a group of Pharisees, Caiaphas proposed: “You have no understanding whatever! Can’t you see that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed?” (John 11: 49-50) There is a double irony a little later when the chief priests revealed that they planned to kill Lazarus, too, because many Jews were switching their allegiance to Jesus “believing in him on account of Lazarus.” (John 12: 11). Did Jesus, then, weep in front of Lazarus’ tomb because he realised that he was about to restore him to life only to lose him as a martyr?
All three readings today highlight the message that love will triumph over death. And love is often found in the most unexpected of places. So let me conclude with a story that comes from Fr William Bausch whom I recently quoted in one of these reflections:
When a young couple found that they were about to have a baby daughter, they set to preparing their young son to welcome his new baby sister. Young Michael began to sit beside his mother, Karen, morning, afternoon and night and put his hand on her tummy to feel his baby sister developing inside. He soon took to singing to his little sister the only song he knew: You are my sunshine. The pregnancy progressed normally until the time of birth was imminent. It was then that complications developed. After hours of labour, the little girl was born, but she was in a serious condition and had to be admitted to the neonatal intensive care unit (ICU) at St Mary’s Hospital.
Over the next few days, the baby’s condition deteriorated so much that the paediatric specialist told her parents that there was little hope for her survival. Sadly, the parents set about preparing for a funeral. Meanwhile, young Michael kept insisting that he be taken to visit his new sister and sing to her. However, hospital regulations don’t allow children into the ICU. Michael did not stop pleading to be allowed to visit and sing. Deciding that the little boy would not see his sister alive if she delayed, Karen agreed to sneak Michael into the ICU. She dressed him in an oversized scrub suit so that he looked a bit like a walking laundry basket. However, he did not escape the notice of the head nurse who bellowed: “Get that kid out of here now! No children allowed!
Karen’s motherly instinct expressed itself strongly. She looked the nurse in the eye and stated firmly: “He’s not leaving here until he sings to his sister!” With that, she led Michael over to look at the baby lying wired-up in a tiny humidicrib. Without hesitating, Michael launched into what he had come to do and sweetly sang: “You are my sunshine, my only sunshine, you make me happy when skies are grey…”
The change was almost instant. The tiny baby’s breathing became calm, and a monitor indicated a steady pulse rate. And Michael kept singing: “You never know dear, how much I love you. Please don’t take my sunshine away.” Now there was no stopping him. Somehow, he saw something change in the little girl, and on he went: “The other night, dear, as I lay sleeping, I dreamt I held you in my arms…” Tears streamed down the face of the bossy nurse as Michael pressed on to the end: “…Please don’t take my sunshine. away” The very next day, the little girl was allowed to go home. Woman’s Day described it as “the miracle of a brother’s song”. Karen called it a miracle of God’s love. The doctors and nurses called it a miracle. Maybe we could call it the Lazarus story rerun. Love is truly stronger than death.