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?”
FOURTH SUNDAY IN LENT – MARCH 17, 2002 – BLESSED SACRAMENT
With today’s readings we find ourselves already fully immersed in the great mystery toward which our Lenten season has been urging us–death and resurrection. In the first reading from the prophet Ezekiel resurrection from the dead serves as a metaphor for the restoration of Israel from exile. In the Gospel the death and resurrection of Lazarus become the opportunity for the revelation of the possibility of life-out-of-death even now, here on earth. And in the second reading, St. Paul counterposes life in the Spirit to life according to the flesh also by the metaphor of resurrection from the dead, but this time it is the work of the same Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead.
The range and depth of the theme speak to powerful abysses of symbols in our bodies and minds, and evoke the most basic feelings. For all of our efforts to keep it out of sight, we know that death awaits us all, and most of us have probably already experienced it in people we loved, family and friends. The possibility of a life beyond death has always haunted humanity, and I don’t think it is absent even among the most secularized of our contemporaries. To use a metaphor St. Paul used elsewhere, death stings; it hurts; there is an element of “This-should-not-be” about it, which I don’t think can be dismissed as merely selfish desire to keep on nor by an egotistic thought that it is inconceivable that the world could keep on turning if we weren’t on it. It is not wrong to enjoy living and to wish life to last.
That is why the Easter toward which we move is not simply another feast in the Church’s year. It is the celebration of the event that originated the Church. Without Easter there would have been no Church, and in fact the Church could be defined as the community of men and women who believed that by raising Jesus from the dead God had begun what the prophet had foreseen as the restoration of Israel, that with this event the coming of the Kingdom that Jesus had preached was initiated, and that the Spirit who raised him from the dead was the Spirit also that enabled a new life within their community that was as different from their former lives as life is from death. And if we gather as the same Church today it must be that we also believe what the earliest Church believed, and that the same risen life is possible to us today.
In our own lives this mystery has been present since the day of our baptisms, which were participation in the death and resurrection of Christ. It should be present every time we are enabled by repentance to move from the death of sin into the grace of a forgiven life. Jesus tells Martha, who had spoken of a future resurrection: “I am resurrection and life. Anyone who believes in me, even if he die shall live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” Resurrection is present possibility. Death can already be overcome. The life of the Kingdom is already begun.
I hope it is not too much to want to apply these powerful biblical texts to the crisis that the Catholic Church is enduring in these days, especially in our country. I at least am tempted to say, with Martha, Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died; my brother priests would not have done such things, and their superiors would not have shirked their responsibilities.( I refuse, however, to say that the Church herself is dead. Our Church is deeply wounded, no doubt, but the Church is not the clergy and the clergy are not the Church.) But a resurrection-prayer for the Church certainly is in order in these days: that the power of the Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead may be among us again and even more powerfully, that it may make our community of faith more visibly what it is supposed to be, that even these evils may be overcome, particularly among their innocent victims, and that we as individual Catholics and as a Catholic community may once again find joy in the new life God has revealed and brought by raising Jesus from the dead.
Fifth Sunday of Lent – March 13, 2005 – Blessed Sacrament
The account of the raising of Lazarus from the dead is read out for us today as an obvious and powerful dimension of the Lenten season, of the preparation for Easter. This scene is the last and greatest of the signs that Jesus performs throughout the Fourth Gospel, an event that has its own clear meaning at one level and a deeper meaning at another.
As usual, it is the dialogue that unfolds the meanings. Martha expresses the grief that so many people have experienced at the death of a loved one: “Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died. But even now I know that whatever you ask of God, God will give you.” Jesus then brings her gently on to an ever-deeper faith: It is not enough that she believes that God will raise her brother on the last day. Jesus says: “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me, will never die.” Resurrection, on this view, a life beyond the power of death, is not something that will occur only at the end of time; it is already possible, it already occurs when one believes in Jesus–He is resurrection and life.
That same theme is powerfully stated also in our second reading, from St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. Paul speaks here of the Christian life in terms of the contrast between the flesh and the spirit. By “flesh” here he does not mean the body; he is not advocating some kind of bodiless existence, or a hatred of the body. “Flesh” refers rather to a way of living, one that is self-centered, self-indulgent, careless of God and of others. The Christian life begins at baptism which is a dying to life of the flesh (in that sense) and the rising into a new life, lived rightly before God. And that event must also be the daily challenge of every Christian: a choice to live by the spirit and not by the flesh: and this is nothing less than a participation in the resurrection of Christ himself. “If the Spirit of the One who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, then the one who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also, through the Spirit dwelling in you.”
Both readings, then, invite us to reflect on and to renew the basic conversion that lies at the heart of our Christian existence. To be a Christian means to live one’s life in a certain way, the way revealed in the commandments. To live such a life means choosing against certain other ways of life, a choice that can feel like a death and involve a struggle like the struggle of someone trying to overcome an addiction. But the challenges, the imperatives, of the Christian life derive from the indicatives, the affirmations, of the Christian faith, and the central affirmation that Christians make is that God has raised Jesus Christ from the dead, and made him the origin of a new life that even death cannot kill. The resurrection of Christ is thus not simply a proof of other truths about Christ; it is the basic reality that Christians proclaim and live. And the great comfort and encouragement we should draw from it, particularly if we do in fact find ourselves in a death-like struggle against our personal demons or addictions, is that resurrection does not have to wait until the end: that the same Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead can be at work in our lives, even now, lifting us up out of one kind of life into the freedom and joy of another.
In these last two weeks of Lent we have opportunity to reflect on this theme of death and resurrection as lived out in our own lives. They provide an occasion also for us consciously and deliberately to renew our baptismal death and resurrection by receiving the sacrament of reconciliation, a kind of second baptism, where we can receive and even experience once again the truth of what these two NT readings tell us today: that in Jesus is found, even now, new life and resurrection from the dead.
Fifth Sunday in Lent – April 10, 2011 – St. John’s
The theme of resurrection lights from within each of the readings we have just heard. It is almost as if the Church cannot wait for Easter, that in our hearts we are already celebrating Christ’s resurrection and our own.
The three verses we have heard from the prophet Ezekiel need to be read in context. They serve as a kind of commentary on the great vision the prophet has had of the valley of dry bones. He sees very dry and disconnected bones strewn across a plain, a symbol of Israel in exile, her children scattered like the bones of a defeated army on a battlefield. But Ezekiel is told to prophesy over the bones: “Dry bones, hear the word of the Lord… Behold I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. And I will lay sinews upon you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live, and you shall know that I am the Lord.” And the prophet then hears a rattling sound and watches the bones take on sinew and flesh and skin, and then, at the Lord’s command, he breathes on them, and they come alive, a great multitude.
This is the vision which our verses illumine. Hear them now: “I will open your graves and have you rise from them, and bring you back to the land of Israel… I will put my spirit in you that you may live, and I will settle you upon your land, and you will know that I am the Lord.” Resurrection here–the bones reknit and given life again–is a symbol of the gathering of Israel’s exiles from all parts and their return to their homeland. The symbol worked in the same way when it inspired the Negro spiritual, “Dry Bones,” which could be sung by the slaves in this country when their fate seemed worse even than Israel’s in exile, when there seemed no more possibility of their gaining their freedom than those dry bones had before Ezekiel prophesied.
An article written a century ago quoted from a former slave from Kentucky: “And the preacher he’d ‘splain the word and read where Ezekiel say: “Dry bones goin’ to live again.’ And honey, the Lord would come a-shining through them pages and revive this old heart, and I’d jump there and then and holler and shout and sing and pray, and they would all catch the words, and I’d sing to some old shout song or war song I’d heard them sing from Africa, and they’d all take up the tune and keep long at it, and each time they sing it they keep a-adding more and more verses to it, and then it would just naturally be‘spiritual.’” And we can gain a whole new sense of what it might have meant to slaves to hear that “dem bones” would one day reconnect, the toe bone to the foot bone to the heel bone to the ankle bone to the leg bone to the knee bone to the thigh bone to the hip bone to th’ backbone to the shoulder bone to the neck bone to the head bone. “Now hear the word of the Lord!”
Our two New Testament readings affirm that resurrection is, or at least, can be part of our present experience. Martha believes that there will be a resurrection on the last day, but Jesus assures her that a resurrected life has already begun: “I am resurrection and life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live, and anyone who lives and believes in me will never die at all.” Life that will never end has already begun; eternal life does not begin the other side of the grave; it begins here and now, has begun already.
That is also the point of the beautiful passage from the eighth chapter of St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, which is a hymn-like celebration of the victory of Christ over sin and death. Even while we continue in this mortal body, the Spirit of God who raised Jesus from the dead is already imparting that life to Christians. Paul employs here the contrast between living according to the flesh and living according to the Spirit. This is not a reference to the body and to the soul; it is a difference in how one lives one’s life, in both body and soul. Paul describes “the works of the flesh” in his Epistle to the Galatians (5:16-26). They include sexual immorality, idolatry, enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness, dissension, envy, drunkenness. To become a Christian is to rise, by the Spirit who raised Christ from the dead, to rise from the death that those works constitute into a life marked by “the fruits of the Spirit”: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, fidelity, gentleness, self-discipline. More than a few people have come to know that to enjoy such blessings, when compared to how they had been living, something very much like resurrection from the dead had to happen.
And if there are some who feel that they are still buried in that living death, dead life, then the mystery we are preparing to celebrate at Easter, Christ’s resurrection from the dead, should come as a great assurance. The metaphor of our resurrection into new life rests upon the reality of his conquest of death, which displays the measure of God’s power and provides the assurance that the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead will give us a life that cannot die. There is a lovely prayer at the beginning of Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians that surely he continues to pray for us: “I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the all-glorious Father, may give you the spiritual powers of wisdom and vision by which there comes the knowledge of him. I pray that your inward eyes may be illumined, so that you may know what is the hope to which he calls you, what the wealth and glory of the share he offers you among his people in their heritage, and how vast the resources of his power open to us who trust in him. They are measured by his strength and the might which he exerted in Christ when he raised him from the dead” (Eph 1:17-19). That we may know what is the hope to which God calls us: surely that is what today’s readings seek to bring alive in us: hope for resurrection into a life that even death cannot destroy.