Fifth Sunday of Lent
April 10, 2011
Reflection by Fr. Michael Himes
As the season of Lent moves to its climax, the celebration of the death and resurrection of Jesus in the midst of which all the members of the church are invited to renew their baptismal vows, the reading from John’s Gospel for this last Sunday before Holy Week begins is the story of the raising of Lazarus. This may seem a clear reference to the celebration of the resurrection two weeks from now on Easter. I suggest, however, that we may better understand this story as a preparation for the account of Jesus’ passion and death which we will hear next week.
Sometimes the most revealing thing about a story is what is left out. If we compare the three synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke with the Gospel of John with an eye to what is in the former but not in the latter, among several striking omissions (for example, no mention of the Eucharist in the account of the Last Supper) two seem to me important when considering the Lazarus story. The first is that John’s Gospel contains no story in which Jesus encounters the reality of death prior to that of his friend Lazarus. We hear nothing about the restoration of life to the daughter of the synagogue official or to the son of the widow at Nain, nor is there any mention of the execution of John the Baptist and Jesus’ reaction to it. The Fourth Gospel tells of Jesus’ using life and death as vivid contrasts in his teaching but nowhere does it describe his confronting the stark fact of death—until this story about the death of his friend in Bethany, the last of Jesus’ signs before the narrative of his passion begins. The second omission is in that passion narrative: John’s Gospel makes no mention of Jesus’ anguished prayer in Gethsemane just before his arrest to be delivered from his own death. In the garden on the night before his torture and death Jesus faces what all human beings must face at some time: the fact that each of us dies. And that is what this story of the raising of a dead man at Bethany is about: not Lazarus’s death (in fact, the story is not much interested in Lazarus at all—he never gets to say a word about his experience!) but Jesus’ confrontation with the reality of his own imminent death. As in the other three Gospels Jesus experiences both fear and sorrow in Gethsemane, so in John’s Gospel when the loss of his friend and the grief and pain of the survivors lead him to confront death for the first time, we are told that he was “disturbed,” “deeply troubled” and that he wept. And when he is brought to Lazarus’s tomb, its description—a cave in the rock with a stone rolled across its entrance—sounds remarkably like his own.
Twenty centuries ago Paul told the fledgling Christian community in Rome that when they had been baptized they had died with Christ and were raised with him. They knew that resurrection presupposes death and that they could not come to life without dying first. In baptism they experienced both when they entered the water which both drowned them and became surrounded them in the womb. They knew that they were both dying and coming to life and they embraced both when they pledged themselves by their baptismal promises.
But there is something more that must not go unrecognized: the difference between Lazarus’s return to life and Jesus’ resurrection, which Paul insisted is also ours. I have suggested that the Lazarus story in the Fourth Gospel is a parallel to the Gethsemane story, not to Jesus’ rising after his own death. What happened to Lazarus in Bethany and what happened to Jesus in Jerusalem are entirely different experiences, and that difference is the deepest foundation of Christian hope. Lazarus is brought back to life. He is restored to life again, but some day, sooner or later, he will die. What he experiences is a restoration and continuance of the life he had always known, and that life (as we creatures know all too well) ends in death. But Jesus is not brought back to life; he is brought forward to life. He is not restored to what he had been but raised to new life and, as Paul reminds us, death has no more dominion over him. That is what is given us in baptism, not a restored version of our old life that inevitably ends in death but a new way of being, a life which ends not in death but in God. Two weeks remain in our annual communal retreat before we are asked once again to accept that new way of being by reaffirming our baptismal promises.
Alumni Responses to Fifth Sunday's Reflection
The difference between Lazarus and Jesus being raised from the dead helps us to understand why the apostles didn't recognize Jesus right away in his resurrection appearances. As in the rest of the Lenten reflections, it's all about seeing.