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April 8, 2017

Ez 37:12-14; Rom 8:8-11; Jn 11:1-45

As Vice President, George Bush represented the U.S. at the funeral of former Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev. Bush was deeply moved by a silent protest carried out by Brezhnev’s widow.  She stood motionless by the coffin until seconds before it was closed.  Then, just as the soldiers touched the lid, Brezhnev’s wife performed an act of great courage and hope, a gesture that must surely rank as one of the most profound acts of civil disobedience ever committed in Communist Russia: she made the sign of the cross on her husband’s chest.  There in the citadel of secular, atheistic power, the wife of the man who had run it all made a gesture suggesting that her husband had been wrong.  She hoped that there was another way of life – a life best represented by Jesus who died on the cross, and that this same Jesus might yet have mercy on her husband and raise him up on the Day of the Judgment.  In today's Gospel, Martha expresses her Faith in Jesus’ assurance of the resurrection of her brother Lazarus.

Introduction: Resurrection hope is the central theme of the Scripture readings for the Fifth Sunday of Lent. We can see the progression in themes from the thirst for living water (on the Third Sunday of Lent), through the desire to be healed of our spiritual blindness (Fourth Sunday) to our ultimate desire to share in eternal life with the risen Lord (Fifth Sunday).  Death and resurrection are the themes that permeate today's Scripture lessons.  The Psalmist awaits Yahweh’s redemption both for himself and for Israel Reporting his vision in the first reading, Ezekiel bears witness to the reanimation of the dead Israel in preparation for her return to the Promised Land. He guarantees his community in exile that Yahweh will one day bring them back to live in the freedom of the Promised Land. He assures his people that not even death will stop God from carrying out this promise.  Yahweh states, "I will open your graves, have you rise from them, and bring you back to the land of Israel." St. Paul, in the second reading, assures the early Roman Christians who were facing death by persecution, and us who are surrounded by a culture of death, that the same Spirit Who raised Jesus from the dead and Who dwells within us will give life to our mortal bodies.  He considers the Resurrection of Jesus as a reality, the ground of our Faith and the basis for our hope of sharing in Jesus’ Resurrection.  For John, in today’s Gospel, the raising of Lazarus is the final and greatest sign of Jesus, the Deliverer, a symbolic narrative of Jesus’ victory over death at the cost of his own life and a sign anticipating his Resurrection. Describing this great miracle, the Church assures us that we, too, will be raised into eternal life after our battle with sin and death in this world.  Thus, resurrection hope is the central theme of the Scripture readings for the Fifth Sunday of Lent.  The readings assure us that our faith in Jesus, who is “the Resurrection and the Life,” promises our participation in resurrection and new life.

The first reading: Ez 37:12-14: The haunting vision of the valley of dry bones described by Ezekiel (37: 1-11), forms the background for today’s first reading.  The imagery may well have come from an actual battle site, probably that of the battlefield after the destruction of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon in 586 BC.  After a few years, the Babylonian soldiers uprooted many of God's people and dragged them into slavery in Babylon, some 750 miles from their homeland.  This was the beginning of the period known as the Babylonian Captivity, or simply the Exile.  Ezekiel was a priest of the Temple of Jerusalem up to 597 B.C., when he was deported to Babylon with King Jehoiachin and the first deportees.  In his vision, the release of the Jews from the captivity and slavery of Babylon is described as a rising from their graves to return to a new life in their own homeland.  Through the prophet, God assures the exiles that they will live again.  They will be raised from death and filled with life.  They will experience new life, life that springs from God’s own Spirit.  The prophet urges his devastated nation to look beyond that catastrophe to a future that vindicates God's justice and promises the restoration of the nation through the Spirit of God.

The second reading: Rom 8:8-11:  In the second reading, St. Paul reassures the Romans of a future resurrection to a life of unending glory for all those who during their time on earth have been loyal to God and His Son Jesus.  This coming resurrection is won for us by the suffering, death and Resurrection of Jesus.  Paul advises the Roman Christians, and us, to allow the Holy Spirit who dwells in them to renew and sanctify them, thus making them eligible for resurrection.  “If the Spirit of the one who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, the one who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also, through his Spirit dwelling in you.”  This indwelling Spirit of God, which we have received in Baptism, will release us from the "grave" of the flesh and allow us to live the life of the Spirit. The Spirit-filled life is a life of intimacy with God.  In this passage, Paul stresses the empowering action of God the Father, Christ, and the Holy Spirit.

Exegesis: The motives behind the miracle: According to John, the raising of Lazarus is the sixth of seven signs. It is the longest single narrative/story in the four Gospels, covering 45 verses. It is also Jesus’ last public appearance before His Passion and death. In addition, it is the last and greatest of the miracles worked by our Lord to demonstrate that he is the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of God, and that through Faith in him believers will receive eternal life.  In other words, Jesus wanted to make this, his last recorded miracle, a convincing demonstration that he is what he claims to be -- the Messiah, sent by God to give new life, eternal life, to mankind.  As this miracle took place a few miles from Jerusalem, Jesus also knew it would give his enemies the impulse and motivation to carry out his condemnation death by crucifixion, which was the “debt” he, "the suffering servant" of God, was to pay for the sins of mankind.  Jesus explains the why of this miracle as, “It is for God's glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” First, when Jesus brings Lazarus back to life, people will give God glory for the miracle.  Second, in this Gospel, Jesus' glorification involves the cross, and verses 45-53 make it clear that Lazarus' raising will lead to Jesus' death and Resurrection.  This is another way of saying that Jesus’ death on the cross will lead to his glorification.  This miracle story, taking place as Jesus is on his final journey to Jerusalem, prepares us for his death and Resurrection. The story is presented in five distinct, self-contained scenes: Jesus receiving the news of Lazarus’ death, the disciples’ protesting Jesus’ return to Judea, Martha’s pleading with Jesus, Mary’s arrival as Jesus stands waiting in the road, and the miraculous raising of Lazarus.

The moving story of sorrow and Faith:  John's Gospel begins with a wedding and closes with a funeral.  There are four primary characters in this story: Jesus, Martha, Mary, and Lazarus.  Martha, Mary and Lazarus, siblings, were good friends of Jesus.  John tells us that he “loved” them.  The funeral rituals of Jesus’ day were obviously different from ours, though very like those practiced by Orthodox Jews even today.\  When somebody died, there was no embalming. Instead, the body was wrapped in linen and, before sunset on the day of death, was put into the burial vault -- a cave carved into limestone rock – often with myrrh, frankincense and perfumes.  (There is some later evidence (early 3rd century) of a rabbinic belief that the soul hovered near the body of the deceased for three days). Then there was intense mourning for seven days followed by a less intense mourning period of twenty-three days.  Lazarus’ sisters had sent word to Jesus that their brother Lazarus was ill and perhaps would soon die.  On receiving the message, Jesus waited two days so that the will of God might be demonstrated and God glorified by His Son through a major miracle.  At last, Jesus went to the house of Lazarus, knowing very well that his friend had died.  On his arrival, Jesus pacified Martha with one of the most treasured of his teachings, which brings great consolation at funeral service, “I am the Resurrection and the Life.  Whoever lives and believes in me will never die.” Jesus offers “eternal life,” which begins with Faith now and lasts forever in its fullness. Then Jesus asked one of the most important questions found in the Bible, “Do you believe this, Martha?”  Martha answered, “I have come to believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, the one who is coming into the world.” Martha pronounced her confession of Faith as a response to Jesus who had revealed himself as the Resurrection and the Life.  Her Faith did not depend upon seeing her brother raised from the dead.  Proof begets knowledge and confirms Faith; Faith does not rest on proof but precedes it.  As John writes this story for his persecuted early Christian community, Martha represents that grieving community in asking the perennial question: "If Jesus gave us eternal life, why are believers still dying?"  John's story offers a challenging response and offers us all those words that bring such consolation at funeral services: “I am the Resurrection and the Life; whoever believes in me even if he [or she] dies will live, and everyone who believes in me will never die.”

 The supporting community and the reassuring Jesus. Martha returned home and told her sister Mary that Jesus wanted to talk with her.  Mary went immediately, surrounded by grieving friends, to find Jesus.  Then comes that classic line, the shortest verse in the Bible.  “Jesus wept.”  The Greek translation literally means that Jesus “burst into tears.”  This showed that he was not only the Son of God, but also the Son of Man, fully human, sharing our grief and our sorrow and comforting us with his declaration, “Blessed are those who mourn for they shall be comforted.”  Mary’s friends who grieved with her are the model of a supporting Church community.  There is something therapeutic about having friends around us when we are grief-stricken.  Hence, the Church must be a community offering compassion and consolation to one another.  Often, in our busy and active culture, we don’t have time to live deeply with our feelings and to share deep love or deep sorrow.

The touch of human sentiments: While the miracle of raising Lazarus from grave shows Jesus’ Divine power over death itself it also shows him as a wonderfully sensitive human being.  His love for Lazarus and his sisters is palpable.  Martha's and Mary's complaint that Jesus' presence would have averted Lazarus’ death shows us how real their friendship was.  So do Jesus' tears.  The story also represents the best of that special human quality in Jesus of openly expressing real feelings.  This interpretive description of Jesus’ greatest miracle is also John’s reflection on the significance of the Resurrection.

Life Messages: 1: “Roll away the stone, unbind him and let him go.”  There are so many dark areas in our private lives.  We often bind ourselves with chains of addiction to alcohol, drugs, sexual deviations, slander, gossip, envy, prejudices, hatred and uncontrollable anger, and we bury ourselves in the tombs of despair. Sometimes we are buried  in the tomb of selfishness, filled with negative feelings such as worry, fear, resentment, hatred, and guilt.   Jesus asks us today to seek his help and that of the community around us to loosen those chains and come out of tombs of our own creation.  Is there an area of life where hope is gone?  Why not invite Jesus to visit this area?  If we want Jesus to visit our dark dungeons of sin, despair and unhappiness, let us ask Jesus during this Holy Mass to bring the light and the power of the Holy Spirit into our private lives and liberate us from our tombs.  Are there times when we refuse to let God enter into our wallets, fearing that faithful tithing will endanger our savings?    When we receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation, Jesus will call our name and command, "Come out!” Jesus calls each of us by name to come out of our graves and to help others to do the same.  “Lazarus, come out!   Mary, come out!   Jim and Joe, Kathy and Lisa, come out!” This is particularly Good News to someone who is addicted, whether to a chemical substance or to unsavory habits. “Lazarus, come out!” This is good news for the person who has lived an empty, meaningless life, “Lazarus, come out!” This is good news for the tired, the hurting, the person at his or her wit’s end. “Lazarus, come out!” This is good news for all of us: “Lazarus, come out!” This can be the beginning of a new life.

2) We need to be ready to welcome death any time.  We live in a world that is filled with death.  We kill each other in acts of murder, abortion, euthanasia, execution, war and terrorist activities.  We kill ourselves through suicide, drug and alcohol abuse, smoking, overwork, stress, bad eating habits, and physical neglect.  We watch calmly as others die from poverty, hunger and malnutrition, homelessness, unemployment, poor education, disease, child abuse, arms proliferation, discrimination, pollution, and destruction of the environment.  The most important question is:  am I ready to face my death?  A strange question and its truthful answer are found in the sacred scriptures of the Hindus.  “What is the greatest wonder in the world?”  The answer is: “All of us know that we will surely die, but each of us foolishly thinks that he or she will not die any time in the near future."  Let us not be foolish; let us be wise, well-prepared and ever ready to meet our Lord with a clear conscience when the time comes.  

In Virgil, there is an account of an ancient king, who was so unnaturally cruel in his punishments that he used to chain a dead man to a living criminal.  It was impossible for the poor wretch to separate himself from his disgusting burden.  The carcass was bound fast to his body -- its hands to his hands; its face to his face; the entire dead body to his living body.  Then he was put into a dungeon to die suffocated by the foul emissions of the stinking dead body.  Many suppose that it was in reference to this that Paul cried out: "O wretched man that I am!"  Today’s readings invite us to turn away from sin, approach the Sacrament of Reconciliation and revive the dead soul we are carrying within our body, thus becoming  eligible for the glorious resurrection Jesus promised to believers at the tomb of Lazarus. 

(Source: Homilies of Fr. Tony Kadavil)