Lowering the barriers to Life

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5th Sunday of Lent, Year A: March 25, 2012
Ezek 37:12-14; Ps 130; Rom 8:8-11; John 11:1-45

Today is the third of three Sunday Masses in which those who are preparing for baptism at the Easter Vigil have been receiving the “Scrutinies.” And so, by design, the Gospel readings at these three Masses are stories in which our Lord Jesus has three key encounters with different persons. In these encounters, he reveals to them something about who they are—especially what has limited them, weighed them down, held them back; and about their unmet needs. And he reveals something about himself: who he is, what he can do, what he wants to do for them and for us. And so our Lord Jesus himself, though his Gospel, scrutinizes the hearts of these elect preparing for baptism; and, indeed, the hearts of each of us.

Two weeks ago, we heard of Christ’s encounter with the woman at the well in Samaria. He revealed that he knew of her turbulent sexual history, which manifested a great thirst for true love; and that he himself was the Living Water that she had always been seeking without knowing it.

Last week, we heard about how he healed the man born blind. And then the story continued from there, with the Pharisees showed their own moral blindness, refusing to follow what their own eyes told them, to discover the truth about Jesus; while the man himself came to see penetratingly, deep below the surface, and to recognize that Jesus is the Light of the World.

Both of these encounters involved strangers—people who had not met Jesus before. But the story we hear today involves friends—Martha, Mary, and Lazarus, three brothers and sisters, whom we are told that Jesus loves. We have seen them before, in a story told in the Gospel of Luke (10:38-42), when Jesus was visiting their home in Bethany—and Martha was busy with many household duties, while Mary was sitting at his feet, listening to his teaching.

But now the situation is different. Lazarus is very sick; and the sisters send word to Jesus, “the one you love is ill.” So the story begins. And it ends when Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead—thus demonstrating that he has power over death itself; that he has power to give life, true life; that he himself is the Resurrection and the Life.

It is a huge lesson. In the Gospel of John, which is structured partly according to a series of key miraculous signs, this is the culmination of those signs, the one that prepares most directly for his coming passion, death, and resurrection—and for the outpouring of new life that will come through baptism, the gift of the Spirit, the Eucharist, and the other sacraments in the life of the Church.

But if the story starts with word of Lazarus’ illness and ends with him being raised from the dead, what happens in between? What happens is a drama, in the interaction between Christ and the two sisters who are already his friends. They know him; they love him; they know that he loves them; and they know that he can heal the sick. Now he wants to reveal something new to them about himself, and to give them a tremendous gift; but we see that it is not so easy for them to receive what he is giving.

Martha is still the practical one, the responsible one, the one in control. When he finally arrives at their village, she is the one to take the bull by the horns, to go out to meet him, and to deliver the rebuke: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” But she immediately says, “But even now I know…” and she makes three great affirmations of faith: that God will grant whatever Jesus asks; that he is the Christ; and that Lazarus will rise on the last day. On their own, these are great affirmations! But, in context, she seems to be using her tightly controlled belief as a barrier against her disappointment in him—and therefore a barrier against hearing and seeing the new thing about himself that he wants to reveal. Christ’s power extends further than she realizes, even to raising the dead. And the Resurrection is not just something that will begin at the end of time, but it will begin in him. In her tightly controlled faith, Martha cannot take this in.

Mary is still the one with her heart on her sleeve, who does not go out to meet Jesus but stays at home, until Martha contacts her. When she meets him, she too rebukes him: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” And she crumples on the ground in front of him, weeping, her whole body declaring her crushed heart at what she thinks is a failure of his love. Her faith, her hope, her trust have been badly wounded, when he did not respond in the way that she expected. She cannot see his love; and in the moment she does not allow him to show that he does love her and Martha and Lazarus, and that he is about to give them a gift surpassing everything. In her heartbreak, Mary cannot take this in.

But when Jesus at last calls forth Lazarus from the tomb, calling him from death back to life, then they see: they see his power, which they could not see before; they see his love, which they could not see before.

“O my people, I will open your graves and have you rise from them… Then you shall know that I am the Lord.” “I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live.”

In two weeks, at the Easter Vigil, our elect will receive a gift in baptism greater than the gift that Lazarus received that day. For Lazarus was raised back to earthly life, and eventually he died again. But in baptism our elect will receive the power of Christ’s resurrection applied to their souls: cleansing, empowering, bringing them to spiritual life. In this final stage of their journey, we assist them with our prayers: that Christ may draw out of their heart anything that is weak and sinful—so that he can heal it; and also all that is strong and good—so that he can strengthen it.

I invite the elect—Jack, Aimee, and Tommy—called and chosen by Christ—to come forward at this time, with their godparents.


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Published in: on March 25, 2012 at 2:15 pm  Leave a Comment  
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