Fifth Sunday of Lent ~ 29 March 2020
Both of our first two readings this Sunday, from the prophet Ezekiel and St Paul’s Letter to the Romans, speak to us of God’s plan to give us life. A promise that the limitations of our mortality will be transcended by the power of the Holy Spirit, by the divine life breathed into us. The Gospel which follows, the very familiar tale of the raising of Lazarus, fleshes out what this means for us here and now.
At its heart lies what is, famously, the shortest verse in the Scriptures. Whether in Greek, Latin, or English, it is two words: “Jesus wept.” These words are the culmination of several apparently odd things Jesus does. When told that Lazarus is sick, he doesn’t go to help; he waits two days. Now, when we hear how long Lazarus has been dead, we realise that he was probably dead by the time the message got to Jesus, something Jesus himself would have known. But shouldn’t he have still rushed to carry out this miracle and spare Martha and Mary some grief?
In fact, grief has value. It is not an evil to be avoided or shortened. It has a purpose. Psychologists would say the same, and speak of its importance in coming to terms with loss. But for us, grief has a deeper meaning. We get a glimpse of it as Jesus weeps; in the oddness that the one who is about to bring Lazarus back to life, is crying for him. Pope St Leo the Great wrote that this demonstrates the two natures of Christ. The human part of Christ mourned for the death of his friend as the divine part of him prepared to raise him from death.
We can see it also in ourselves. While the divine life in us, the Spirit dwelling in us, as St Paul tells us, gives us hope; however great our faith, we don’t go to the funeral of one we love singing “Tra-la-la, it all going to be wonderful.” Humanly, like Jesus, we mourn, we weep.
But it is not just his humanity that causes Jesus to weep. For Lazarus this is not eternal life. Lazarus, even after this great event, will die again. Indeed we hear in the next chapter that Jesus’s enemies will also plot to murder Lazarus. Like his friend and Saviour, Lazarus will die at the hands of sinful men. Cause enough for our Lord to weep. When Jesus called on Martha to declare her belief that he was the Resurrection and the Life, he was not speaking of this, but of what is to come, of what lies the other side of his Passion and death.
That is why this is supremely a Gospel for Lent. Like our human mourning it reminds us that we live in the “not yet.” Just as we wait to celebrate Easter, so we await the fullness of the Lord’s promise. It is not yet here, however. The raising of Lazarus is not the Resurrection from the dead, in which we declare our faith each time we recite the creed. It is, rather, a foretaste and sign of what is to come, just as the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist is a foretaste and sign of the Real Presence we will experience when we meet Christ face to face.
That is a particularly poignant thought when we are separated from the celebration of the Eucharist by the restrictions which necessarily surround us at this time. We do indeed truly live in the “not yet.” But our grief for this, too, must surely be a reflection of our hope. In this true Lent we currently experience we can yet look forward to the fulfilment of the Lord’s promise. We may not be able to celebrate Easter this year fully, but for all of us the true Easter, the one that never ends, awaits. It is looking forward to that which enables us to join with Martha and say, “Yes, Lord. I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God,” in the confidence that he is indeed our Resurrection and our Life.
Fr Chris Denham
St John the Baptist, Parnell