FIFTH SUNDAY OF LENT (2020)
The words that Martha (echoed by Mary a bit later in the gospel) speaks to Jesus in today’s gospel when Jesus finally shows up after Lazarus’ death might very easily come out of our own mouths: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Of course on our lips, it might have sounded more like: “Lord, if you had been here, my” – niece, mother, father, son, daughter, brother, nephew, wife, sister, husband, aunt, grandmother, uncle, grandfather – “would not have died.” In spite of our faith, we recoil from death and its finality. We are easily overwhelmed by a real sense of loss, and sadness overtakes all of our emotions. Like Martha, who shared a very special friendship with Jesus, we know our loved ones “will rise, in the resurrection on the last day,” but at times that gives us very little comfort. Like Martha, and no doubt Mary and their many friends, we wonder why Jesus could not have spared our loved ones’ suffering and death – if only “He had been here”?
It is clear from the gospels, that Jesus shared a very special friendship with Lazarus and his sisters, which would only have heightened the expectation that Jesus would have had a more swift response to their message: “Master, the one you love is ill.” The frustration of Martha and Mary in the gospel is tangible, and yet their faith in Jesus still appears steadfast, unshakable.
Mary is the least composed of the sisters, and her upset is clearly obvious. Indeed, her “weeping” and the “weeping” of those who surrounded her to comfort her, moved Jesus who “became perturbed and deeply troubled.” Was Jesus angry that Mary’s faith was so fragile that she thought He was going to let His special friends down? Indeed, His emotion does not appear to be anger at all, for it led the beloved disciple John to write three of the most significant words in any of the gospels: “And Jesus wept.” The very Son of God, who took on our humanity, weeps like Mary, and like we so often do, for He feels their pain at the loss of their brother and His good friend Lazarus. The crowd recognizes how much Jesus loved Lazarus: “See how he loved him,” yet they are still curious how “the one who opened the eyes of the blind man (last weekend’s gospel) could not have done something so that this man would not have died.”
The inexplicable delay of Jesus in returning to Bethany appears to be cloaked in the mystery of Christ’s obedience to God’s plan. From the beginning of this gospel story we are told that “this illness is not to end in death, but is for the glory of God, that the Son of God may be glorified through it,” an obedience that gives Jesus the opportunity to tell
Martha, had she any doubts, just who He is: “I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me (just as Martha and Mary do), even if he dies, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”
While the focus of our gospel story might appear to be Lazarus, it is not. It is Jesus who is the gospel’s focus. He is the fulfillment of the prophets, recognized in our first reading from Ezechiel: “Thus says the Lord God: O my people, I will open your graves and have you rise from them.” This is precisely what Jesus does. Lazarus’ miraculous resuscitation is not the resurrection of Jesus, nor the resurrection that we all await. That resurrection, just as it changed the mortal body of Jesus into the glorified body of Jesus, is the resurrection we await. Lazarus, like us, will one day have to die, and what our gospel story proclaims is that the promises of the One who called Lazarus from the grave (“even if he dies, will live”), are not empty promises, but are promises that are meant to lead us, as it did the Jews at the end of the gospel, “to believe” in Jesus.
It should be noted this late into the Lenten season, that in John’s gospel the catalyst for the Jewish authorities killing Jesus is precisely this resuscitation of Lazarus. In the very next verses following our gospel the Pharisees and the Sanhedrin worry “that if we leave Jesus alone, all will believe in Him.” From the day of this gospel story “they plan and to kill Him.” In the very next chapter, when Lazarus, Martha, Mary, and others, are all at a dinner, and Mary will anoint the feet of Jesus, an anointing akin to the anointing of one for burial. Jesus was surely aware that His raising of Lazarus would only inflame the authorities, and lead Him that much closer to Calvary.
At some point, Lazarus, Martha, or Mary will die, and those that are left behind in this world will have to recall the full meaning of this moment described in the Gospel of John, a moment which will strengthen them in their time of loss. As in our loss of a loved one, there will still be tears, the same kind of tears shed by the very Son of God over His friend Lazarus. But because we have the rest of the story, we know that our friend Jesus was willing to embrace the cross and die, in order that the plan Jesus was so faithful to all His earthly existence might be fulfilled in His resurrection from the dead, the same resurrection promised to Martha, the same resurrection promised to us. May our faith sustain us when we are called to endure the loss of loved ones, and may our tears mingle with those of Jesus, who understands our pain, but who insured we are never left without Hope.