If you're here early, the link for the video of my homily is not yet available. When it becomes available, I'll embed it here.
Homily: 5th Sunday in Lent – Cycle A
“Now a man was ill, Lazaras from Bethany.” Perhaps we’ve heard this scripture a number of times before, but I’m guessing that, because of our present circumstances, we might hear these words in a new way today. In this time of heightened anxiety about the severity of illness that the coronavirus can cause, none of us can sit back and hear the words, “Now a man was ill...” and not think of the countless men and women who have fallen ill over these past months; perhaps even more so given that men and women increasingly close to home are also starting to fall ill. Any of us who have a human heart beating in our chest have, perhaps, become much more sensitive to news of anyone becoming ill. Maybe today, therefore, as we hear these words, we are even more anxious to hear what good news the Gospel can speak to us; and so, let us see what our Gospel reading speaks to us today.
Martha, Mary, and Lazarus were close friends of Jesus. The Gospel tells us that “Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus”. Because of this close friendship, the three of them had come to acknowledge Jesus as the Messiah and they put their faith in his ability to heal even mortal sicknesses. And so, when Lazarus fell ill, Martha quickly sent word to Jesus, hoping that he’d come to save her brother from this illness. Jesus didn’t come right away, however, and Lazarus died. In fact, by the time Jesus had arrived, Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days.
Because of this, Martha and Mary both confront Jesus, saying: “If you had been here, my brother would not have died!” They are hurt because Jesus did not appear to respond as quickly as they, because of their friendship, expected that he would. Jesus, in spite of already knowing what he was going to do, nonetheless displays the fullness of his humanity when, confronted by the sorrow being experienced by these sisters whom he dearly loved, he himself weeps. It’s a touching moment that we would do well to consider any time that we experience a loss in our own lives, but especially now when this experience is so tangibly apparent. But let’s imagine for a moment that the story ended there: Jesus weeping while Lazarus remains dead in the grave. If that were the case, he’d be a great teacher, prophet, consoler, and even, perhaps, friend, but he wouldn’t be God.
Thus, when we hear Jesus tell Martha plainly, “I am the resurrection and the life”, we hear something different. With these words, Jesus is telling her that it isn’t just his belief that Lazarus will rise, but rather it is his concrete knowledge of who he is and of what he is capable. Friendship with God, Martha discovers, is not divine protection from pain, suffering, or even death, but rather a guarantee that, in that pain, suffering, and even death, God will be with us. When Jesus weeps, we see the most touching, but telling evidence that he, indeed, is with us, in the fullness of our humanity. When he calls Lazarus from the grave, however, we see the still greater evidence that not only is Jesus with us—the great teacher, prophet, consoler, and friend—but that Jesus is, indeed, God: and that, in Jesus, God himself is truly with us.
Thus, in Jesus, the words of the prophet Ezekiel have been fulfilled. When Jesus called Lazarus from the grave, he brought new light to the rebirth foreshadowed in his promise to bring back his chosen people from exile. Those people thought themselves dead because they had lost the land from which they took their identity. Thus, when the Lord “brought them back to the land of Israel”, they truly felt reborn. Little did they know, however, that one day God himself would take on human nature and walk among them and would, literally, open the graves of the dead and have the dead rise from them.
Notice that the ancient Israelites were not prevented from experiencing exile because of their friendship with God. Rather, it was because of their friendship that they were eventually restored to their land and given “new life”. Notice also, that Lazarus was not prevented from experiencing illness and death, nor were Martha and Mary prevented from experiencing the loss of their dear brother, because of their friendship with Jesus. Rather, it was because of their friendship that Lazarus was raised and they were all given “new life”. So it is now, that our friendship with God will be no guarantee that we will not experience sadness, difficulty, or pain. Rather, our friendship with God is a promise that God will lift us from that sadness, difficulty, or pain, if we remain faithful to our friendship with him.
Friends, this is the message of Lent: that we are dead because of sin, but through Jesus we are raised to new life. The threat of physical illness, like that caused by the coronavirus, is serious and has raised in us new levels of compassion for others. I pray that it is also raising in us a new awareness of our need for a savior. I pray that this time in which we’ve been forced to isolate has helped us to examine our consciences a little more deeply and to become aware of how deeply rooted our sinful inclinations can be. I pray that we will use this time—even as it extends into Easter—to turn back to the Lord in love, to grow our friendship with him, so that we might be given a “new life” when our social restrictions are lifted.
You know, when Lazarus was raised from the dead, he didn’t come back like a zombie. Rather, he came back as himself. I guarantee you, however, that his life never went back to the “normal” it was before he died. I’m sure that he, and his sisters, began anew and created a new “normal”... a better one... one that united them more deeply to each other and to Christ and in which they worked to build the kingdom of God. Friends, may the externally imposed penances that we are experiencing this Lent lead us to greater conversion, so that the new “normal” that we create after coronavirus restrictions are lifted—anchored, as it surely will be, in the Eucharist—lead us to do as Martha, Mary, and Lazarus did: uniting ourselves more deeply to Christ and to each other and dedicating ourselves to proclaim the Risen Christ and to build his kingdom until he comes again in glory.
Given at Saint Mary’s Cathedral: Lafayette, IN – March 29th, 2020