Today we hear the very familiair story where Jesus raises Lazarus from the death. We can find this story only in the Gospel of John, though other Gospels show Jesus raising people from the death (Jairus’s daughter, the daughter of the widow). But this story in the Gospel of John we can call the seventh climax or the seventh sign if you want:
John wrote it into a living and dramatic narrative. In a very human way he is deepening the teachings about Jesus and the resurrection. This is the last and most significant image in the fourth Gospel. Outside of the resurrection from Jesus himself of course. John explores in this way the meaning of the resurrection of Jesus for his community of believers. It is the climax of the 7 signs which leads to the heart of this Gospel’s teaching. In comparison with the New Testament, the Old Testament does not talk too much, with a few exceptions, about life after death. There is not a real conviction about life after death in general. The exceptions are in Ezekiel that speaks methaphorically about the future restoration. Also the Book of Daniel and 2 Maccabees teaches the resurrection. The context there is martyrdom.
In that context it is a question about Gods faithfulness of those whom were faithful to death. In that context it is an urgent question for the people then. In order to speak about God as just, a teaching about reward and resurrection in the next life emerged. The driving force was not the frailty of the human condition but the need to speak about God as just. And finally in the psalms we find also some pointing to the possibility of something more. When you read the Gospel of John carefully you notice that the Gospel puts many “I Am” sentences on the lips of Jesus.
Today we hear one : "I Am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die’. These I AM sentences in particular aggrevate the Jewish authorities of course. And that is for a good reason. These are intentional echoes of Gods self-revelation to Moses as “I AM WHO I AM” (Exodus 3).
It feels odd to talk about this story today and especially when so many are anxious about the COVID-19 emergency and so many people worldwide lost their lives as a result of the illness. It is beyond doubt that it has made us more aware of our own mortality and the fragility of life. This Lazarus Story is linked to the resurrection but we still need to get to Good Friday before we arrive at the triumph from Easter. As hard as it is: we cannot get to Easter without Good Friday. Or in other words we cannot reach the triumph without suffering. It might look that the reading is too soon talking about resurrection isn’t? But in reality that is not really the case. Because the Gospel narrative is more about death than resurrection. After all, logically, after his rising up again Lazarus still had to face death a second time. This story wants to be more about our mortal condition here and now than the resurrection. We will have time enough to consider the Easter mystery when we get to Easter Sunday.
When I was in theology school I studied Biblical drama and meditation. In these classes you do a lot of exercises where you try to put yourself in the story (Ignatius of Loyola). You should try to put yourself in the place of each character in turn and imagine how it makes you feel. This can be a challenging exercise. Can I try to put myself in the place of a character of the story: Mary, Martha, one of the disciples, Lazarus, maybe Jesus himself? Imagining ourselves in the place of a Gospel character can bring us fresh insights. This story features here in Lent to help us live life to the full. A close encounter with death can shock us into appreciating life. A loss or bereavement shows again what makes life worth living. Perhaps even the oppressive nearness of COVID-19 has made us re-assess our priorities and renew our trust in divine providence. Jesus was a close friend to the two sisters and their brother. They always made him welcome in their home in Bethany, whenever he passed by on his way to Jerusalem. One day the sisters notified him, “Our brother Lazarus, your friend, is sick” but he delayed before setting out to visit them. When he got there, Lazarus was already dead. When the younger sister, Mary, saw Jesus she cried out in grief.
When Jesus saw her terrible sorrow he was deeply moved and broke down in tears so that people remarked: “See how much he loved him!.” He did not just cry for the death of a close friend. He shared in the anguish of everyone in the face of death. We have the tendency to say that God wants our suffering. But in fact He doesn’t! The Gospel of today shows that He is a compassionated God who suffers when His people suffer! He is there to support them and to lift them up but He certainly does not like the situation they are in. That is a result of the human condition and frailty.
Human beings have an insatiable will to live. Like the two sisters of Lazarus, we also wonder why do we have to die? We too, like people in the time of Christ, feel in our hearts that burning question that is hardest to answer: what’s going to happen when we die? What can we do in the face of death? Most of the time we forget about that question and “get on with living. Concerning our final destiny neither science nor philosophy are of much help. We see that in the Covid 19 crisis. Doctors and nurses can take care of a suffering body but not of a suffering soul. That is why there are other professionals. I like the view of one writer who said: “Concerning death, reason tells me that it is final. But then, I guess that my reason is limited.”
We Christians don’t literally know any more about the afterlife than anyone else. Like all others, we are humbled by the inevitability of death. But we trust in the goodness of God, demonstrated in the life and words of Jesus. He is the Lord whom we love, and whom we trust with our very lives. Like Martha, we respond with simple faith to our Lord Jesus who says: “I am the resurrection and the life.” The Swiss theologian Hans Kung memorably said: “dying means resting in the mystery of God’s mercy.” In the meantime we are called to live our lives to the full. Amen.