Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Homily: The Fifth Sunday of Lent: Passion Sunday: 2014

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.”

The Gospel for this Sunday seems just a bit odd or at least a bit premature. We begin today Passiontide with crosses veiled not so that we will forget about the Cross but so our attention will be focused on the Cross. But Jesus says to Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life.”

In fact this Gospel  for centuries was the Gospel set on the very threshold of Passiontide, the Friday before Passion Sunday. The Church could come up with no better preparation for Passion Week and Holy Week than hearing the story of the Raising of Lazarus.

Because the comforting of Mary and Martha had a price. Because Jesus was bringing life to the dead by his own death. The disciples try to stop Jesus from going to Judea because they are afraid that the Jews will kill him. Indeed raising Lazarus sealed his fate. The miracle was the immediate cause of his arrest and crucifixion. “Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what he did, believed in him.” The raising of Lazarus creates the crowd that will shout “Hosanna to the Son of David” – the same crowd which will soon enough cry “Crucify him! Crucify him!”

After the raising of Lazarus Jesus was at the height of his popularity. Even the Greeks ever curious say “we would see Jesus”.  But “the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered the council, and said, "What are we to do? For this man performs many signs. If we let him go on thus, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation."

So quickly day turns to night: Judas betraying him, Peter denying him, his friends deserting him and only the Cross welcoming him, embracing him and finally consuming him: consumatum est – “it is finished.”

If Lazarus was to live, Jesus had to die. Jesus had to descend into the grave which Lazarus had left.

The Pharisees’ question is a good one for us,  even if we hope that our motivation is different: “what are we to do?”  Not likely that we will bear the Cross exactly the way he did: after all he tells us to bear our own cross. Even less likely that we shall raise the dead. But still the Gospel this Sunday gives us the pattern for the next two weeks, the pattern for our life, year in and year out, day in and day out.

First, Jesus goes to Lazarus because he knows he has to look death in the face. Death is perhaps the last taboo, the one thing that secular culture cannot mock, however hard it may  try. Perhaps this is because to mock death is to get too close to reality. Death unconquered does not really draw laughter; only the defeat of death is really something to laugh about.  But Jesus wants to stand before this enemy of humanity and he weeps. He wants to stand and wants us to stand at the tomb and be troubled, crestfallen, angry,  however you want to translate the word. He weeps not only for his friend but for Adam and Eve, for the whole of death-infected humanity. We should be able to cry in Passiontide not for Jesus but for ourselves and the mess we have made of God’s garden.

Jesus weeps and prays to the Father. "Father, I thank thee that thou hast heard me.” He wants us to pray to the Father too. This is what we shall hear from Jesus all through Holy Week: on Maundy Thursday the great high priestly prayer: "Father, the hour has come; glorify thy Son that the Son may glorify thee;” on Good Friday: “Father, forgive them” -- Father into thy hands I commend my spirit.” Jesus does not raise himself from the dead; he is raised by his Father.

Lazarus is raised because Jesus begs the Father to do so – like all his miracles – not accomplished by magic but by power granted to by the Father. “Not my will but thine done” is the prayer of Jesus in the garden and the prayer too of those who have lost the garden.

Finally when Lazarus comes out of tomb Jesus says “"Unbind him, and let him go." The Latin Vulgate says ‘solvite eum’  -- that is ‘absolve him.’ Jesus not only loosens the burial shroud from Lazarus’ body but also loosens the bounds of his sins. The real test of Holy Week is wither or not we will allow Jesus to pull us out of the death of sin through the sacrament of penance. Because otherwise we are just spectators, guilty by-standers observing at some safe distance the spectacle of the Lord’s death.

Despite the plotting, the betrayals, the denials, the abandonment, the wounds of the whips, the nails, the blood, Love alone has done this. Only because he dies the death of obedient love can he call himself “the Resurrection and the Life” and can utter those death-defying words: “whoever believes in me shall come to life, even though he should die.” Obedient love:  that is what must lie ahead for Jesus and for you and me.

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.”

With considerable help from Blessed John Henry Newman and, as always, Fr. Hans von Balthasar. 

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