Fifth Sunday of Lent – Year A

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Francis J. Caponi, O.S.A. 
Villanova University
Villanova, Pennsylvania

Ez 37:12-14
Ps 130:1-2, 3-4, 5-6, 7-8
Rom 8:8-11
Jn 11:1-45, or 11:3-7, 17, 20-27, 33b-45

As a seminarian, one of my summer assignments involved bringing communion to the homebound and the sick in a local parish. Over the course of several months, I got to know many of the parishioners, and became especially fond of one young woman, whose situation was very sad. Her name was Beth, she was in her early thirties with a husband and two young children, and she had cancer. Whenever I visited, she always welcomed me with a bright smile, even when it was obvious that the chemotherapy was taking its toll on her. I was deeply impressed by her faith. She spoke openly about her love for Jesus Christ. We often read the Scriptures together.

One day in early August, the parish secretary stopped me on my way out, and told me that the parish had received word that Beth had died. I picked up my Bible, jumped in the car, started the engine – and then sat there, thinking. “What do I say to a young husband who has lost his wife? What do I say to a father who has two children to raise without their mother?” I was only twenty-five, and I didn’t yet know that there is little to be said. You sit, and listen, and pray. But I thought that there must be some special combination of just the right words, which I hadn’t learned yet, that would make the family’s awful burden a little lighter; and, frankly, would also make me feel better.

I reached the house and walked slowly up the steps. I knocked on the door – and was greeted by Beth herself. She said, “Oh, this is a nice surprise! I wasn’t expecting you today!” And I thought, “That makes two of us.” I mumbled something about being in the neighborhood and deciding to drop by. So there I was, drinking iced tea and talking with a woman I had thought was dead, sitting in the house of a man whose wife was alive, looking at pictures of children who hadn’t lost their mother. What an occasion to give God thanks, what a joyous moment, what a miracle!

But all I could think was, “I am going to kill the parish secretary.”

What must Martha and Mary have felt as their dead brother stepped from the tomb? Doubtless, the sisters watched as Lazarus’ eyes closed on the world, and stood by as the stone was rolled and the grave was sealed. They knew that no one comes back from that. As much as they love and trust Jesus, as much as they believe that if he had been present before Lazarus’ death he would not have died, they can’t bring themselves to hope that he can do anything now. Martha tries to believe. She says, “I know that whatever you ask of God, God will give you.” But when Jesus commands that the stone be removed, she tries to stop him, because Lazarus has been dead for four days. And no one comes back from that.

Then Jesus shouts words that thrill our hearts: “Lazarus, come out!” And the dead man comes back. What do Mary and Martha feel? Do they faint? Do they scream? Do they run to Lazarus – or away from him? It seems so odd that the Gospel doesn’t tell us how his own sisters react when a man comes back from that place from which no man comes back

But John does tell us how other people react; and like me at Betty’s house, their reaction is not what you would expect. The last line of today’s gospel is this: “Now many of the Jews who had come to Mary and seen what he had done began to believe in him.” Think about that. “Many believed.” Many. A man died, and was sealed in a tomb for days, and Jesus brought him back to life, and many of the people who saw this believed in him.

Many, but not all.

In the lines from the gospel which follow today’s reading, we are told more: “Now many of the Jews who had come to Mary and seen what he had done began to believe in him. But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done. So the chief priests and the Pharisees convened the Sanhedrin and said, ‘What are we going to do? This man is performing many signs. If we leave him alone, all will believe in him, and the Romans will come and take away both our land and our nation….’ So from that day on they planned to kill him.”

Take note: The chief priests and the Pharisees do not ask the witnesses if this could have been a trick, if Jesus might have pulled a fast one. No one wonders if there was a secret back entrance to the tomb, through which Lazarus was getting food and water during his four days of hiding. They don’t suggest initiating a special investigation to see if this is all an elaborate hoax set up by the family, with Jesus’ involvement. The Sanhedrin doesn’t make a trip to see Lazarus and ask the questions that every one of us would ask: “What did you see, what did you hear?

What is that place like, that place from which no one comes back?” As far as we can tell, the chief priests and the Pharisees don’t doubt that Jesus of Nazareth stood in front of a tomb, and cried out, and brought a dead man back to life. But their response to this is not joy or praise or faith. Their response is not thanksgiving that God has visited His people, and a dead man has come back to life. Instead, their response is a cold calculation. They recognize that Jesus is performing signs, doing mighty things, and drawing more and more followers.

Their response is to plan his murder.

In a state of anger and embarrassment, I joked about killing the parish secretary. The chief priests and the Pharisees are deadly serious about killing Jesus.

There is the cold, hard reality of sin. A sinner like me could see a young wife and mother he thought was dead, and his first response is anger at a mistake which made him feel afraid and foolish. Sinners at the time of Christ could see the blind given sight and the sick made whole and the dead brought back to life, and see only a threat to their safety and power.

We may feel shock that anyone could witness such a miracle and not fall down at the feet of the Lord, shock that anyone could hear about it and not rush to meet Christ and beg to be his follower. But that is not what the Holy Spirit wants. Instead, we must see ourselves in the crowd. They heard the good news that God was redeeming Israel from sin and sickness, and calmly

went about the business of planning Christ’s death. We behold the risen Lord on this altar, we hail him as the Lamb of God, we declare that we are not worthy to receive him – and what changes? Not with joy do we go forth from here, not with a more generous spirit of forgiveness and a greater resolution to care for the poor and bring back the lost. We see what kings and prophets longed to see, we eat what angels gaze upon in wonder, and then we return to our greed and lust, our vanity and lies. We receive the King of kings, and then leave to serve a different master.

This Lent, Christ says to us what he said to Lazarus: “Come out!” Since God has forgiven us in Christ, can we now refuse forgiveness to our spouses, parents, children, or friends? Since Christ gives to our bodies, dead from sin, a new spirit of righteousness and hope, can we now eat our meals without a thought for the poor, treat our bodies without a thought for purity, give more attention to our own comfort than we do to the sick who have no visitors, or the dying who have no consolation? Can we hear Christ call to us, “Come out of the darkness of death and sin!”, and yet spend more time complaining about the inconveniences inflicted upon us by the coronavirus than we doing praying for the infected, and for those who care for them?

Today, Christ proclaims that he is the resurrection and the life. If we trust in the Lord, then our former way of life must be put to death. We cannot meet suffering with indifference, nor seek revenge for our wounds. We cannot let another Easter pass with no greater change than a new set of clothes. Christ was dead, and is now alive. Let us respond as we should, with praise, conversion, service, and hope.