Homily From the 4th Sunday in Lent, Year A

Whoops!  It looks like with all the craziness of Lent, I forgot to post this one.  Here you go!


When I was in high school, I took a theater course one semester, and I remember at one point receiving the script of a play called Terra Nova to study.  Just looking at a script from an academic standpoint is kind of boring though.  There’s a description of the setting and props, then “name, colon, dialogue” and on and on.  It’s pretty lifeless.  But I remember then having the opportunity a few years later to see Terra Nova at the Repertory Theater, and it came to life.  It’s one thing to read the lines, but another to see the emotion of the characters and to grow and connect with them.  I think the same is true with the Gospel.  We read the readings every week as a parish, and some of them multiple times a year, so it becomes ordinary to us.  But really, we’re invited to enter into it; to put ourselves into the place of the biblical characters.  That’s a Jesuit style of reading the Scripture, and now that we have a Jesuit pope, well, I guess that means it’s a good thing!

St. John is incredibly brilliant in the efforts he makes to help the Gospel come alive for us.  Every little detail is important.  For example, Lazarus and Bethany are just names and places, but it’s also true that in Hebrew, “Lazarus” means “God helps” and “Bethany” means “House of the Afflicted.”  Well that’s all of us!  All of us are afflicted and need God’s help.  We all live in Bethany with our own kinds of afflictions, and all of us are Lazarus, seeking the help of God.  We’re meant to connect in some way with the dead man and his family, who we’re told Jesus loved and cared for very much.

The Raising of LazarusBy Rembrandt
The Raising of Lazarus
By Rembrandt

It’s interesting that when Jesus hears about his friend, he doesn’t rush, but waits two whole days!  Does that make sense?  Was he not able to catch a flight?  Did he want to catch just one more episode of The Big Bang Theory and get hooked on it?  Why would the only man who can do anything about this problem delay?  Isn’t that a question we find ourselves asking sometimes?  Why does God make us wait?  Why doesn’t he just deal with our pain?  C’mon Jesus, I’m Lazarus and I’m in Bethany!  Let’s go!  But Jesus gives the answer that the Son of Man will be glorified through the illness and death in Lazaurs.  Now this might seem strange, but that’s one truth that we find throughout the Bible – when God is glorified, he gives life.  Whether it’s the glorious word of God creating the universe, the glorious pillar of fire giving new life to the People of Israel in Egypt, or the greatest mystery that we’ll soon celebrate on Easter, when God is glorified, he gives new life to his people.  That’s why St. Irenaues of the Early Church wrote that “The Glory of God is man fully alive.”  The only thing more powerful than death is the divine love with which Jesus loves us.

There’s a really interesting detail that sneaks into our Gospel here.  The Gospel points out that when Jesus arrived, he spoke to Martha, who then called Mary, her sister.  The Gospel points out that Mary gets up and goes to Martha, and that all these Jewish women with her got up and followed her, thinking that she was going to the tomb to weep.  In Jesus’ time, every funeral would have this group of official mourners who would represent the community.  They were hired to wail and weep and play flutes and sing “Amazing Grace” and whatnot.  So when Mary gets up, they think she’s going to the tomb to weep and mourn.  But she doesn’t – she goes to Christ.  Don’t miss this detail.  Everything in her system was telling her to go to the tomb, to weep her heart out.  How true is that for us when we experience the pain of loss?  It could be the death of a relative like Martha and Mary, but it could be the loss of other things: some illness that causes the loss of independence or physical ability, the loss of a job and the dignity that goes with it, the loss of a friend or family member who turns their back on you.  How much do we want to turn back to that loss and simply remain there, emotionally or spiritually dead?  But where does Mary go?  Not to death, but to Christ.

The Raising of LazarusBy Alessandro Magnasco
The Raising of Lazarus
By Alessandro Magnasco

This is followed by what I believe is one of the most gut-wrenchingly moving scenes of the Bible – Jesus weeps.  We know that Jesus is God.  We know that he’s all-powerful and all-knowing – but he’s not a distant God.  We see many emotions in Jesus throughout Scripture – intense suffering, anger, exultation, and even a little partying at the Wedding Feast at Cana.  But only here in the shortest line of the New Testament do we see Jesus weep.  Jesus is experiencing the awful sense of finality that we all feel when we recognize loss.  It’s a terribly real experience of our humanity that we will one day be separated from the ones we love.  We’ve been talking about that this whole homily – being the Lazarus in Bethany, the one in need of God in the house of the afflicted, being the Martha and Mary struggling to understand and cope with suffering and loss, that experience of waiting for God to come and do something, anything, to make that loss go away.  Well, now we see Jesus enter into that real human experience, weeping with the grief that we all feel.  Christ weeps when we weep.  He stays with us in the Eucharist even when everyone else has abandoned us.  We may be tempted to be angry with God or feel abandoned by him, but we need only think of this, the shortest line in the New Testament – “Jesus wept.”  When God permits us to suffer, he isn’t abandoning us, but weeping with us, bearing with us his saving Cross.  St. Therese of Lisieux, one of my favorite saints, put it this way: “The greatest honor God can do a soul is not to give it much, but to ask much of it.”

Brothers and sisters, let us turn now to the one who gives new life to the seeming finality of death.  Let us answer him as he calls us forth from the tombs of our sinfulness and self-loathing and loneliness.  Let us allow him to remove the sin and attachment to loss that binds us and prevents us from coming to him.  Let us be satisfied by the Eucharist with which he now feeds us, and follow him to the conclusion of Lent as his disciples.

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