Pastoral Reflections

5th Sunday of Lent – First Passion Sunday - 2017

Our Lenten journey, which we began on Ash Wednesday little over five weeks ago, is quickly drawing to a close. Today, we enter the period of our church’s liturgical calendar known as passion-tide. It is the most solemn time of the year, and so all of our religious statuary and crucifixes are cloaked in the regal color of purple, symbolizing the mourning and deep sorrow that lies ahead. Passion-tide serves to commemorate the last two weeks of our Lord’s earthly life prior to his passion, death and resurrection.

Today’s readings remind us directly and symbolically of the sorrows and the joys that make up what we call life. In our first lesson, Ezekiel is described as experiencing a vision of new life formed from an initial vision of a valley of dry bones. This is analogous to Christ’s reminder to us that unless the seed germinates (dies in the ground) new life cannot shoot forth from it. In our second lesson, St. Paul articulates the promise that God and Jesus made, namely, that the Holy Spirit will serve to ‘give spiritual (everlasting) life to our mortal bodies’. The gospel reading taken from St. John, recounts the story of the raising of Lazarus from the dead. All three lessons provide us with a level of encouragement, that, once the worst is over, we will rise and live in a glorious way.

The narrative of Lazarus’ resurrection is carefully crafted by John, as a prelude to Christ’s passion narrative and prepares us for what is soon to come. It was the miracle of Lazarus’ resurrection that sealed Jesus’ fate, as far as the Israeli leadership was concerned. From that day forward, the Pharisees and the Temple elders plotted to have Christ arrested and eventually killed.

In the story of Lazarus, Jesus confronts death itself within the mortal body of his good friend, and emerges victorious – a foretaste of Easter Sunday. As our narrative opens, the Lord’s coming death is called to mind. Mary, Lazarus’ sister, is identified in the gospel as the one, who at this time, ‘anoints the Lord with ointment’ – for ‘the day of his burial’ (cf. John 12:7). Lazarus’ illness ‘will not end in death, but instead in God’s glory’ and the glory of his Son.

The death of Jesus, if he ‘goes to Judaea’ is a real and terrifying prospect for his disciples – leading Thomas to exclaim, ‘Let us go too, and die with him’. Today’s narrative highlights the close ‘friendship’ of Jesus with the family in Bethany: who will soon to be caught up in the drama of the Savior’s rejection by the nation’s leaders. Such a detail, we know, has great significance in the meditative style of John’s gospel.

‘I call you friends, not servants’ Jesus will tell his disciples at the Last Supper (John 15:15). And the repeated reference to ‘the beloved disciple’ in the narrative that follows brings out in graphic detail the implications of Jesus’ words. They become an encouragement for all who follow the way of discipleship.

In the account of the raising of Lazarus, we are left with no doubt that Jesus triumphs over death in all its horror. We read that the mortal remains of Lazarus have been in the tomb for ‘four days’: ‘He will smell’, his sister warns. Numerous mourners have now assembled; not all of them well disposed towards Jesus – an intimation of what is soon to follow. ‘Could he not have prevented this man’s death’, some of them ask. Much like some shouted at Jesus, as he hung on the cross, ‘if you are God’s Son, come down off the cross and save yourself’! In this narrative about Lazarus, Jesus makes clear that he is confronting death, and, that he, the Christ, becomes the clear victor!

As Jesus sets out for Bethany, after the death of Lazarus, he declares, ‘I am glad for your sake, because now you will believe’. What was to happen in Bethany was to be a sign for those who were to witness it, and for us, who by the grace of God and the writing of St. John, are privileged to hear about it. And although Jesus knows that the Father ‘always hears him’, he addresses the Father publicly, saying, ‘I plead for the sake of those who stand around, so that they may believe that it was you who sent me’. This serves as a claim of his divine mission, which Jesus utters many times in the course of John’s gospel.

In the exchanges that take place between Jesus and Lazarus’ sisters, he leads them towards the fullness of faith that will unite them with him in his final victory over death – namely, his Paschal Mystery. Like his other disciples, Martha has already found faith in Jesus as ‘the Christ, the Son of God, who is to come into the world’. Now she is led to recognize the full implications of this coming, as she affirms her faith in the truth of Jesus’ words, ‘I AM the resurrection and the life’ – the very source of ‘eternal life’.

Ultimately, Jesus cries out, ‘Lazarus, Come out’! The victory now is complete and absolute. Jesus instructs those there to ‘Unbind him, and let him go free’. These words of promise are also symbolic for all who will believe in Jesus’ coming triumph.

My dear friends, the lessons today should serve to inspire the most doubtful and hardened amongst us. We are reminded unequivocally that absolute faith is not only something that confronts and contradicts common sense. But that it also the vehicle by which we, like Lazarus, will also achieve divine life. The pleasures and struggles during our pilgrimage on earth pale when compared to the majesty of life eternal with the Lord. Let this be our meditation over the remainder of this week, and as we move toward celebrating, the most Holy of Weeks in human history.

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