The first reading today presents a stark picture. The Israelites in exile in Babylon were anything but alive. They had lost everything; their Temple, their land and the God who had always protected them seemingly had deserted them also. As a result they were dispirited and depressed, like the walking dead. In graphic fashion Ezekiel compares them to a graveyard full of bones. It would have been easy for Ezekiel to despair also but somehow or other he had the grace to realise that God is a saving God who is especially active when we are at our lowest. The utter powerlessness of a person or a people seems to cry out to heaven and is heard. And so Ezekiel proclaims that God will open their graves, raise them up again and restore them to their homeland.
Dead men and dead women walking is not a thing of the past. Pope Francis is well aware of the burdens many poor people have to carry in today’s world and how they are bound up like Lazarus and are helpless to set themselves free. Here is a quote from paragraph 52 of his recent encyclical, ‘The Joy of the Gospel. “We have to remember that the majority of our contemporaries are barely living from day to day, with dire consequences. A number of diseases are spreading. The hearts of many people are gripped by fear and desperation, even in the so-called rich countries. The joy of living frequently fades, lack of respect for others and violence are on the rise, and inequality is increasingly evident. It is a struggle to live and, often, to live with precious little dignity.”
The Pope however is full of hope because he knows that’s God mercy is boundless. Today’s gospel scene is one of the great signs of what God intends for his people. In calling forth Lazarus from the grave, Jesus accomplished what Ezekiel had promised in the first reading. In this great sign, Jesus was revealed as one sent by God, as one with God, and as the resurrection and the life.
The evangelist yet again uses one person to represent others. In this case the experience of Lazarus is a paradigm for every believer. He represents all those who are barely living from day to day, all those who desperately struggle to eek out a living and have lost all dignity. Some scholars go as far as to say that the Lazarus here is the same Lazarus in Luke’s gospel who was a beggar at the gate of Dives and that John includes him here to show how vast and comprehensive is the resurrection into life that Jesus promises to all people.
We too are included. Just as Jesus loved Lazarus so does Jesus love us! Just as Jesus wept for Lazarus so is Jesus fully and even emotionally invested in our well-being, suffering with us and weeping for us too. Moreover, just as Lazarus was raised, so every believer begins to live life anew at baptism and, after death, rises to live forever in glory with the Lord.
The preface in the Mass of Christian Burial declares that in death “life is changed, not ended”. Death is a passage or a transition, not a terminal experience or a black hole. This does not mean there is no pain or sorrow or wrenching separation at death. Like Mary and Martha we all suffer deeply the loss of a loved one. But if we truly accept Jesus at his word, and if we truly understand Lazarus’ story as the story of us all, then there will arise in us hope and trust that will see us through that passage with strength and assurance.
The key driver in all of this is belief in the resurrection. If anyone had that sense of being unbound and lifted up like Lazarus, it was the apostles. Before the light of Easter shone on them they were all caught in hopeless despair. But when the risen life of Jesus pulsed through their veins they were unstoppable to the extent that the powers that be complained that they had filled the whole of Jerusalem with the teaching. Belief in the resurrection propelled them into a whole new way of living. It relativized all worldly pursuits and concerns because they are as nothing compared to the surpassing worth of knowing Jesus Christ as Lord and the power of his resurrection.
The raising of Lazarus anticipates the resurrection of Jesus and our being raised with Jesus. It is very good news especially in this world that has such a fear of death. Of course there is nothing quite so chaotic as our own death and dissolution. But if we believe that God has created us for a purpose and that God’s dreams for us far exceed all our imaginings, then that moment of greatest helplessness can be the moment of greatest grace. In the meantime we are given the Spirit to drink who will constantly urge us toward goodness, justice, righteousness, peace and compassion for others. As our teacher, defender, guide and inspiration, the Spirit is not content to be heeded only once in a while or when it is convenient. On the contrary, the Spirit compels us to be the growth and transformation we want to experience in our world.
We who profess to believe in him as the resurrection and the life are endowed by his Spirit to be living signs that reveal who Jesus is and challenge others to share our faith in him.
Sunday, 6th April 2014