March 9, 2008
Readings for the 5th Sunday of Lent
Reading 1: Ezek. 37:12-14
Responsorial Psalm: Ps. 130:1-2, 3-4, 5-6, 7-8
Reading 2: Rom. 8:8-11
Gospel: Jn. 11:1-45
(link to readings)
By Father Ray Ryland, Ph.D., J.D.
In the Book of Revelation we read about the vision of the four living creatures who surround the throne of God. “And around the throne, on each side of the throne, are four living creatures . . .: the first living creature like a lion, the second living creature like an ox, the third living creature with the face of a man, and the fourth living creature like a flying eagle” (Rev. 4:6–7).
From earliest centuries of the church, these figures have been adopted as symbols of the four Gospels: St. Matthew’s Gospel is symbolized by a human figure, St. Mark’s by the symbol of a lion, St. Luke’s by the symbol of an ox, and St. John’s by the symbol of an eagle.
A number of the early Church Fathers commented especially on the eagle as a symbol for St. John’s Gospel. St. Augustine, for example, explained that John “soars like an eagle above the clouds of human infirmity, and gazes upon the light of the unchangeable truth with those keenest and steadiest eyes of the heart” (De consensus evangelistarum, 1.6.9). Indeed, St. John’s Gospel does focus our attention on “unchangeable truth” in more explicit terms than do the other Gospels.
At the same time, in the fourth Gospel we find more insights into the deeply human life of Our Lord than in any of the other Gospels. One of those insights occurs at the beginning of today’s Gospel account of the raising of Lazarus from the tomb.
Recall that our Lord Jesus was a homeless person: no parents, no brothers, no sisters. There is a touching, even plaintive, note sounded in our Lord’s words to a would-be follower. Jesus said, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man has nowhere to lay his head” (Lk. 9:58).
But Jesus did have one refuge: the family composed of two sisters, Mary and Martha, and their brother Lazarus. “It was Mary who anointed the Lord with ointment and wiped his feet with her hair . . .” (Jn. 11:2). Jesus had been a guest in their home. Martha’s request that Jesus tell Mary to help in the kitchen indicates that Jesus was a familiar guest (Lk. 10:38–40). The sisters were close friends of Jesus, and when they sent word of Lazarus’ illness, they simply called their brother “he whom you love.” These three persons and Jesus loved each other. Jesus had a home in their family.
“I Knew You Would Come”
Think first about the call for help that came to Jesus.
The sisters of Lazarus sent word to Jesus: “Lord, he whom you love is ill” (Jn. 11:3). Notice that they did not ask Him to come: They knew that when He learned of their need, He would come.
During World War I two men who were close friends served together on the front lines. One of them was caught in enemy fire and lay, badly wounded, between the Allied and German trenches, unable to move. His friend unhesitatingly risked his life to crawl out and also under enemy fire rescue his friend. When he reached his wounded friend, the friend weakly murmured, “I knew you would come.”
Do you and I have that much faith in Jesus? Do we really trust that He will always come to our aid, especially in times of suffering? Do we count on Him to strengthen and defend us in times of temptation? “God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your strength [that is, the strength we can find in Jesus], but with the temptation will also provide the way of escape”(1 Cor. 10:13).
God’s Power and Glory
Now consider Jesus’ delay in responding to the call.
“Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So when he heard that he was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was” (Jn. 11:5–6). At first glances, these two verses seem to contradict one another. If Jesus loved Lazarus and knew his desperate need, why did Jesus not hasten to the side of Lazarus?
Jesus’ delay when Lazarus was dying is what one commentator has called “a part of the severe yet gracious discipline of divine love.” That is, before He intervenes to help us, God sometimes has to wait until we have exhausted the other means we usually trust to give us help. Like an alcoholic, as Alcoholics Anonymous tells us, we may have to “hit rock bottom” before we really let go and let God come to our aid.
See how Jesus explained the significance of Lazarus’ illness.
When Jesus learned Lazarus was ill, He said, “This illness is not unto death; it is for the glory of God, so that the Son of man may be glorified by means of it” (Jn. 11:4). On the one hand, Jesus’ raising Lazarus from the dead would be an astounding display of God’s power. But on a deeper level, the resurrection of Lazarus would be instrumental in manifesting God’s glory. It would turn out to be the event that sealed Jesus’ fate.
Repeatedly in the fourth Gospel Jesus speaks of His—and the Father’s—being glorified through the death of the Son. Here is one example. When Judas left the Last Supper to betray Jesus into the hands of the authorities, Jesus said, “Now is the Son of man glorified, and in him God is glorified . . . ” (Jn. 13:31). Jesus knew that raising Lazarus would force the hand of His enemies, and they would bring about His death. And so Lazarus’ resurrection would be the last step in Jesus’ glorification through His death. A few verses beyond the end of today’s Gospel make this fact clear. “So from that day on [that is, the resurrection of Lazarus] they [the chief priests and the Pharisees] took counsel how to put him [Jesus] to death” (Jn. 11:53).
A Courageous Pessimist
Notice the courage of St. Thomas in all this.
When it became plain to the disciples that they could not deter Jesus from going to Bethany, “Thomas, called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, ‘Let us also go, that we may die with him’” (Jn. 11:16). Thomas the doubter may also have been a pessimist, but he was a courageous pessimist. He must have been afraid of what lay ahead. Who would not be, knowing that what he was about to do would probably result in his death?
But in Thomas’ resolve to be loyal to his master at all costs, we see the real meaning of courage. It takes no courage to do something one knows will have no harmful consequences. No! Courage only comes into play when fear arises. Courage means doing the right thing regardless of fear of what may happen.
Life in Christ
Note that Martha both reproached and trusted Jesus.
In Martha’s words to Jesus we see another hint of the familiarity that existed between members of that choice family and Jesus. “Martha said to Jesus, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died’” (Jn. 11:21). Martha could not help reproaching Jesus. In effect she was saying, “Why didn’t you come before my brother died?” But immediately she added, “And even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you” (Jn. 11:22). So to her reproach she also added a statement of faith: “You should have come when we needed you, but I trust in you.”
For Martha, and for us, Jesus shed new light on resurrection.
Jesus said to Martha, “‘Your brother will rise again.’ Martha said to him, ‘I know that he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day’” (Jn. 11:23). In Jesus’ time most Jews believed in some kind of life after death. But Jesus opened up whole new vistas with His response to Martha. Jesus said to her, “‘I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die . . .’” (Jn. 1:25–26).
There seem to be two levels of meaning in what Our Lord told Martha. On the one hand, Jesus seems to speak of spiritual death caused by sin. We know that Jesus Christ does give new life by His healing forgiveness. And, thanks be to God! He has entrusted the powers of absolution to His Church.
On the other hand, Jesus is also speaking of life after death. Think about the dying words of St. Edward the Confessor. (He was an English king who died in 1066.) “Weep not,” he said, “I shall not die; and as I leave the land of the dying I trust to see the blessings of the Lord in the land of the living.” Notice the saint’s language. We ordinarily speak of this world as the “land of the living,” but in fact it is the land of the dying. We’re all dying, moment by moment, day after day. But by God’s grace we’re also preparing for life in the land of the living, the eternally living.
Sin and Death
Why was Jesus so agitated at the tomb of Lazarus?
“When Jesus saw her [Mary] weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled . . .” (Jn. 11:33). Literally, the text says, “he groaned in his spirit and troubled himself.” The word we translate “groaned” does not refer to grief. Rather, it refers to indignation and displeasure.
What caused Jesus to be indignant and troubled?
I think Jesus was deeply troubled—I think He was deeply indignant—as He squarely faced in the lives of His friends the devastation which sin has brought into the world. Physical death—the sundering of the spirit from the body and the body’s decay—the grief of those who survive—all this and so much more is the result of sin—the original sin.
“See How He Loved Him!”
Speaking of Our Lord’s groaning reminds me of a conversation in Virginia with a friend about a week ago. Visiting in his home I noticed a picture of him, his wife, and the first four of their children. The picture was taken at a Mass offered by Pope John Paul in his private chapel. I asked for his comments about the picture.
He said that in the last years of Pope John Paul’s pontificate he had been privileged to share in the pope’s private Masses on three separate occasions. Once he was seated on the front row, and from a distance of a few feet could clearly see the Holy Father’s face from the side. He said the Holy Father’s face was contorted in pain, and he also said he could hear the Holy Father’s groaning. I think in his saintly human way, as he prayed for the world, Pope John Paul’s spirit was troubled in much the same way as was that of his Divine Savior, before the tomb of Lazarus.
Think about Our Lord’s infinite love for His friends, and for us.
Jesus said, “‘Where have you laid him?’ They said to him, ‘Lord, come and see.’ Jesus wept. So the Jews said, ‘See how he loved him!’” (Jn. 11:34–35) When you and I look at the crucifix, we can and we should say, “See how He loved us!”
Now the question you and I must ask ourselves every day—by far the most important question we can ever ask ourselves—the question about fulfilling—or failing to fulfill—the one eternal purpose of our lives—that one question is, “How well am I returning that love?”
Father Ray Ryland is CUF’s spiritual advisor.
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