FIFTH SUNDAY IN LENT – MARCH 28, 1993 – BLESSED SACRAMENT
With the scriptural readings we have heard today, we are already placed before the great mystery which we will celebrate two weeks from today, the triumph of Christ over death. Rarely do the Mass readings concentrate so clearly and so exclusively on a single theme, and today’s is the one around which our faith centers: resurrection.
It centers around resurrection, first, because Christianity arose out of a conviction that Jesus of Nazareth, the one who had been crucified, had been made Lord and Messiah in the Spirit that raised him from the dead. It is highly unlikely that anyone would have remembered Jesus, even as a good man, apart from that conviction. A group of Palestinian Jews had indeed followed after him for a year or two, intrigued by his preaching, beginning to hope that he might indeed be Messiah. But that was a hope that for them was crushed by his arrest and execution, for nothing had prepared them to believe that Messiah could meet such a fate; and the evidence is that it had destroyed their community as well and that they were prepared to return to their individual lives. It was only their experience of him as having triumphed over death that renewed their faith and restored their community and made it possible that we, nearly two thousand years ago, still speak of Jesus of Nazareth, still call ourselves by his name, still live in the world he described, before the God he called Father, and try to become people worthy of that God and at home in that world. We owe our Christian lives to the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Those lives are themselves resurrected lives. When Jesus comforts Martha, it is not only with the promise of eternal life after death for her brother; he calls her to believe that eternal life has already begun: “I am resurrection and life. Whoever believes in me, though he should die, will come to life; and whoever is alive and believes in me will never die.” The life that triumphs over death is already begun for those who believe, and they need not fear death.
And that eternal life has begun in believers through their own resurrection in baptism. St. Paul speaks of this in today’s second reading. Baptism is a sacramental participation in the death of Christ, a descent into the grave with him–perhaps dramatically symbolized for Paul’s original readings by their own immersion deep into the waters of baptism–and an ascent with him from that grave into a life that was supposed to be as new and different as were the white garments they put on after their baptism. The Spirit of Christ now lived in them, the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead, and now the challenge of the Christian life was to live by that Spirit and not by the values and criteria of their former and dead life. And the resurrection into a new life was also the promise that physical death also should hold no terror for them.
We live, or at least we should live, in the hope that this resurrection can generate. The words of the prophet Ezekiel here can help us. The prophecy we have heard today ends the famous narrative of the dry dead bones scattered across a battlefield of defeat, which when the Spirit of God blows over them begin to join together again in a newly constituted Israel. Resurrection was already the promise given to the Jewish people.
It is a promise that remains alive and is even confirmed by our Christian convictions about Christ and by our Christian experiences of baptism and conversion. This promise should particularly mark our lives with a profound and ineradicable hope. There is none of us who does not or will not in some way encounter the mystery of death: in the death of others and in the prospect of our own deaths; in sickness and disability; in frustration and failure; in betrayals, those we suffer and those we inflict; in our own sinfulness. These encounters with real and metaphorical death can threaten to destroy us, to make us cease to live in hope, to surrender in resignation or in despair.
These readings challenge us to believe and to hope: to believe even when there seem to be no grounds for belief, to hope against hope. We did not bring ourselves into this world; we were created by a God who called us into existence by name. Jesus of Nazareth did not end in failure and disgrace; he was raised from the dead. We did not free ourselves from our sins; we were freely forgiven and set free of their burden by Christ’s love. With such blessings already received, how can we not hope that there is nothing that can separate us from the love of God, that he still holds our life in his loving hands, that there is no shadow so dark that the light of Easter cannot scatter it, that there is no sin so grievous that God cannot forgive it, that there is no evil so deep and so wide that God’s love cannot enable us to sustain it and to triumph over it.
That is what our faith is about; that is why we gather here each week: we believe in Jesus Christ, who, even now, is resurrection and life. All the other aspects of our existence as the Church derive from this center, and it must become a center from which radiate a light and a power that can enable us to walk through the darkest experiences and to withstand the severest challenges. But we need to let that light and power work, by acknowledging them in faith, by being grateful for them in prayer, by allowing them, perhaps slowly and gradually, perhaps suddenly and dramatically, to become the inspiring and guiding spring of our everyday lives. Here–in resurrection and life–is what Christianity is all about, the fundamental gift and challenge we are asked to acknowledge and to receive, to proclaim and to give to others. Jesus leaves us with the challenge: “I am resurrection and life. Do you believe this?”