5th Sunday – Death, the Church and the Voice of the Son of God

John 11:1-45

The Sunday of the Third Scrutiny. In the First Scrutiny, we met Jesus as the one who can satisfy our restlessness – our infinite thirst. Last Sunday we encountered him as the one who can make us see and envision a life we never imagined. This Sunday, before Passion Week, in the Lazarus episode, we have an image of sin with its most potent weapon – death, physical but also spiritual. We encounter Jesus as the One who is Life itself, who undoes all the destruction caused by sin and the Evil One.

Resurrezione di Lazzaro, by Giotto. In Padua, Italy.

Martha and Mary, who appear in the gospels as the friends of Jesus, send word to the Lord, regarding Lazarus’ condition. The one you love is ill. We never hear Lazarus’ voice in this story. This story carries a lot of teaching on prayer. The sisters state their situation. They don’t even suggest a solution, echoing the pattern of Mary’s prayer at Cana. Even at this desperate time, they don’t feel the need to be desperate.  The basis of their hope is simply their confidence in Jesus’ love for Lazarus. Such a humble confidence in prayer can arise only from one’s own experience of Jesus’ love for them. 

            When this word reaches Jesus, he gives a promise – this illness will not end in death. Then, strangely, he decides to stay on two more days. This can be a common experience in prayer. God seems to remain silent or God seems to give a promise and the exact opposite happens.  It is entirely possible that by the time the news reached Jesus, Lazarus was already dead, given that it would be four days when Jesus reaches the tomb. 

            Jesus finally arrives at Bethany, and Martha is the first to meet him. Martha does not  seem angry – but maybe she is disappointed? She is vocal in her dialogue – if you had been here, my brother would not have died[Why did you abandon us in our hour of need? Why couldn’t you have come earlier? And why didn’t you come, as soon as you heard the message?] This kind of dialogue is part of genuine prayer. The Psalms are full of the cries of lament, protest against God who does not seem to act on the psalmist’s behalf. But that moves again to confidence in God, in hope. Even now, God will give you whatever you ask.  Martha wasn’t expecting Jesus to raise Lazarus. She doesn’t really know what to ask; but as she wrestles with God, he reveals himself in a way she has not known. I AM the resurrection. This life of resurrection is so different, so new, it is impossible to even know what to expect. Martha cannot fully understand, but she believes, puts her trust in Jesus. This is faith. Faith doesn’t arise from figuring everything out. Faith is simple trust in a person, in whose love you can be sure.  And now, Jesus asks for Mary.

            If Martha represents the vocal part of prayer, Mary represents the contemplative. She hears the summons, says nothing, but rises immediately and goes. She is still grieving. The pain is probably too great to be vocalised in any way. Maybe she is even more disappointed than Martha. But her trust in Jesus’ love is greater than her disappointment.

Mary comes and  simply falls at his feet, weeping, taking the position of a disciple. She simply worships. The Spirit helps us in our weakness… interceding for us with groanings too deep for words. (Rom 8:26) The sisters collectively image the movement of prayer. When everything has been said, all that is left is to fall down and worship.  Jesus couldn’t act until Mary was there to complement Martha.  And seeing her, it says, Jesus weeps. This is one of the most moving  images in the gospels. Jesus, the face of the Father, brings before us, in a very human form, how God receives, responds to our pain. He feels it fully. To describe God as the ‘unmoved mover’ of Aristotle says something true within its context; but to believe that God is unmoved by our suffering is one of the most poisonous lies of the Evil One. 

An oft overlooked aspect of this story is the role played by the community of faith – the Church. Martha and Mary even more than Lazarus’ family, are his family of faith, their relationships restructured around their friendship with Jesus. This is the Church – the community of those who have discovered this friendship with Christ (John 15:15). 

            And it is now, that Jesus asks – where have you laid him? The question echoes the primal search of God for Adam in the garden. Where have you concealed him? Bring him into the open. Martha raises a complaint – by now there will be a stench. In the early Church, you might know, the Scrutinies used to be done in public, within the community of the Church. It was done here, because this community of faith is the dwelling place of the Spirit. Here, the Catechumens would be examined, to see if their lives were starting to produce the fruit of the Spirit (our Catechumens were greatly relieved to know we no longer do so). This process was not to shame anyone. It was to set right and heal what was defective in their spiritual life; to cauterize the places where sin had taken hold and was rotting.  This was also possible only of course, because the catechumens experienced the community as a place where they were safe and loved with the love of Christ himself, the true evidence of the dwelling of the Spirit. Here, he could begin the healing of the person. We can course, readily recognise this process in the sacrament of confession. Today, that remains the place where what is rotting and producing a stench can still be confidently exposed to the resurrecting power of Christ.

Last week’s gospel emphasised the role of the sacraments in the spiritual life. But it presupposes someone who has some (spiritual) life, broken as it may be. The image of Lazarus invokes the one who is spiritually dead, outside the life and community of faith. Something more fundamental has to take place before he can receive the ongoing help of the sacraments. And it is only in hearing the voice of the Son, that the dead can come to life (John 5:25). What is this voice?  This voice is the love of God, that reaches each one personally. Where can it be heard? The proclamation of the Scriptures during the Mass is of course, the supreme moment of the action of the Word in the assembly. But that presupposes that we are used to hearing God speak through his Word; otherwise this Word will pass us by.  The ancient practices of Lectio Divina and the prayer of Examen are some powerful ways in which we can hear God speak to us. Faith comes by hearing (Rom 10:17). People have to hear his voice before they can come to faith. Even so, God is not limited by the Church. I constantly hear testimonies of people who have experienced the love of God in the most miraculous ways. Sometimes, they have experienced him through a direct action of God in their life. Other times they find Jesus through the love of those who know him. In this, they hear his voice. It is in their voice, that they first experience the personal love of Christ. In meeting them, they meet Christ. In the intercession of the people of God, those who are dying can be healed. In this time of pandemic, cut off as we are from the sacramental life of the Church, let us find consolation in God’s Word and in the Communion of Saints, through which he is always close to us.

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