Fifth Sunday of Lent (Year A)
With the Lord there is mercy and fullness of redemption
“I Am the Resurrection and the Life. Do You Believe This?”
The fifth Sunday of Lent Year A is also called Lazarus Sunday, from today’s gospel that recounts the return to life of this biblical character, brother of Martha and Mary of Bethany, thanks to the work of Jesus. This is the long story that, together with the other two, heard in the previous Sundays (that of the Samaritan woman and the other of the man born blind), forms a “Lenten triptych” to help catechumens and also all of us, already baptized, to taste the beauty of the journey of faith in Christ. With this in mind, let us try to reread carefully the Gospel passage that the Church’s liturgy offers us today, reflecting on the interesting details concerning Jesus’ reaction to Lazarus’ illness/death, Martha’s faith, and Jesus’ self-revelation as “the resurrection and the life.” Such deeper reflection will lead us to discover the important aspects of the Christian faith that we are called to renew, that is, to resurrect in their fullness, again, during this time of Lent in view of Easter now on the horizon.
1. The Death of Lazarus, the “Beloved” Disciple, and Jesus’ Delay
Jesus’ behavior when faced with the news of His “friend” Lazarus’ illness is very interesting because it is paradoxical: “So when he heard that he was ill, he remained for two days in the place where he was.” The evangelist emphasizes the paradox even more, by highlighting Jesus’ love for our character in the announcement of the news: “Master, the one you love is ill,” and again immediately after: “Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.” Jesus Himself called Lazarus “our friend” where the noun, in light of what the context reveals, should be understood in the strong sense of “beloved.” Therefore, here some would rightly exclaim, “How strange this love of Jesus!” Indeed, after learning of His friend’s grave situation, He did not immediately go to visit, comfort and possibly heal him. Instead, He lingered precisely “for two days,” not only to “let Lazarus die,” but also to let him lie in the tomb for four days. This is the time that marks the end of any hope of some return to life, because it corresponds to the beginning of the decomposition of the corpse according to Jewish tradition. So much so that when the two sisters Mary and Martha met Jesus, their first sentence was a kind of complaint: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
Thus, in the eyes of the sisters and their countrymen, Jesus is four days late to save His “friend.” However, He was still able to perform the miracle of His love, bringing Lazarus back to life. This is a fact of great spiritual depth that is emphasized in the beautiful song (Gospel song) “Four Days Late” (by American authors C. Aaron Wilburn and Roberta Wilburn): Even when He is four days late, He is always on time! Yes, He is always in time to save His friends. And here is the beautiful existential application of the Gospel episode in the mentioned song that I fully subscribe to:
You may be fighting a battle of fear
You’ve cried to the Lord “I need You now!” But He has not appeared
Friend don’t be discouraged
Cause He’s still the same.
He’ll soon be here. He’ll roll back the stone and He’ll call out your name!
When He’s four days late and all hope is gone
Lord we don’t understand why You’ve waited so long
But His way is God’s way (it’s) not yours or mine
and isn’t it great when He’s four days late- He’s still on time!
Oh my God is great: when He’s four days late- He’s still on time!!!
2. The “Faith” of Martha
The second paradox to be contemplated in the story is Martha’s “faith.” The quotation marks (for the word faith) are obligatory, because Martha from her dialogues with Jesus, believed in Him, but in the end, it seems instead that she did not believe her Master all the way. This is a curious journey of faith in the revelation of Jesus as “resurrection and life.”
On the one hand, indeed, from the very beginning of the encounter with Jesus, after a slight gripe (“Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died”), Martha immediately expressed her faith-knowledge in her Lord’s power: “But even now I know that whatever you ask of God, God will give you.” However, when Jesus states, “Your brother will rise,” Martha seems not to have given too much weight to that statement, responding generically according to her knowledge (perhaps of the Catechism of the Catholic Church!): “I know he will rise, in the resurrection on the last day.” Hence, there follows Jesus’ clarification-revelation that He is “the resurrection and the life” for those who believe in Him with a final question as a concrete invitation to Martha, “Do you believe this?” Here comes her very prompt reply, “Yes, Lord. I have come to believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, the one who is coming into the world.” With that sentence Martha solemnly confirmed her faith in the Lord Jesus, “Yes, Lord. I have come to believe.” Indeed, she repeated the confession we heard in the other Gospels on the lips of St. Peter, spokesman for the apostles and the whole Church: “You are the Christ, the Son of God.” But such a generic profession of faith (as in the Catechism!) does not sound like the response Jesus expected in this situation. Martha generally believed in Jesus, sincerely loved him, but (perhaps also because of grief over the bereavement) seemed not to pay too much attention to what Jesus concretely asked and taught. So much so that in front of the tomb, when Jesus ordered “Take away the stone”, Martha immediately advised her Master, “Lord, by now there will be a stench; he has been dead for four days,” as if to say. “Lord, don’t command strange things; perhaps You don’t know that...!”
Such faith-not-faith of Martha appears exemplary for the spiritual life of every believer who recites the Creed of the Church very well during Mass, but in everyday situations seems to act exclusively according to his or her own judgment, without confidently consulting and listening to what the Lord wants to ask at that moment for his/her own good. Such a believer would say to the Lord like Martha, “Lord, You know everything, and I believe it, but in this concrete situation, perhaps I know better than You. Therefore, do not command me strange things to do!” And here are Jesus’ words today, which always apply to such believers-not-believers like Martha (even and especially in their darkest period): “Did I not tell you that if you believe you will see the glory of God?” Truly, if you believe in Him and obey His words, even the strangest, the most seemingly absurd ones, you will see the “glory of God” in your life and in the lives of your family members, just like Martha. Do you believe this?
3. Jesus’ Statement – Resurrection and Life
Jesus’ statement in Jn 11:25-26 is articulated as in the other self-revelatory discourses. It starts with a statement (v.25a), followed by the specification of content (vv.25b-26a). In addition, the latter has the peculiar structure, called “chiasmus,” with the thoughts cross-displayed: (A) the dead believer - (B) will live; (B’) the living believer - (A’) will not die. (This is the frequent way of expression in the Judaic tradition and also in Jesus’ speeches, as, for example, in his saying: Whoever exalts himself will be humbled; but whoever humbles himself will be exalted.)
Here, in Jesus’ self-declaration, such a stylistic figure detects the accentuation all about life, the eternal life. It then determines to some extent the meaning of Jesus’ affirmation as resurrection and life: in Him (i.e., for those who believe in Him) the ultimate transition (i.e., the action of rising again) from death (whether physical or spiritual) to true life, the eternal life, is possible. In other words, He is the resurrection to eternal life as the ultimate salvation, designed by the Father and offered in Jesus, His Sent One. The addition therefore of “the life” after “the resurrection” appears to be an indispensable clarification, although it is not found in some ancient manuscripts. Moreover, any dichotomous view of physical and spiritual life in the explanation of vv.25b-26a appears unnecessary. The life in question is the eternal life which, in accordance with Johannine thought, can begin even now with the coming of Jesus (present eschatology) for those who believe and remain in communion with Him and which will continue even after physical death. The case of Lazarus is an eloquent illustration of this, indeed, a “sign,” to use Johannine language.
The dialogue between Jesus and Martha with the technical expressions concerning the resurrection such as “he will rise again” and especially “on the last day” (vv.23-24) connect with the discourse on the bread of life in Jn 6, the only place where Jesus left similar statements. Precisely, Jesus declares on the occasion twice (with the emphatic “I” in the second) His power to resurrect the dead believer “on the last day”: “And this is the will of the one who sent me, that I should not lose anything of what he gave me, but that I should raise it [on] the last day. For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who sees the Son and believes in him may have eternal life, and I shall raise him [on] the last day” (Jn 6:39-40). Such thinking is already found on Jesus’ lips in Jn 5:28-29 in the discourse with the Jews concerning the works and power of the Son: “Do not be amazed at this, because the hour is coming in which all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and will come out, those who have done good deeds to the resurrection of life, but those who have done wicked deeds to the resurrection of condemnation.” The idea therefore of the resurrection of the dead has a clear path in John’s gospel that culminates in the miracle of raising Lazarus, the last of Jesus’ seven signs and the foretelling of the resurrection of the Son of God (the very glory of God; cf. 11:4 and 12:23, 28). Moreover, the connection with Jn 5:28-29 gives a glimpse of Dn 12 as the Old Testament background to Johannine thinking on resurrection and, in particular, Jesus’ self-declaration in Jn 11:25.
In this context, the greatest paradox emerges from today’s gospel: Jesus, the resurrection and life of believers, will also undergo death and burial. Ironically and significantly, He commanded Lazarus to come out of the tomb because it is the place reserved for Him! He, the good shepherd, will give His life to His sheep, to His believers (cf. Jn 10:15). He will later explain, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (Jn 15,13). We thus already enter the mystery of Jesus’ Passover, that is, His passage from this world to the Father, from death to resurrection. It is always about the mystery and mission of Love dying to give and renew life to His “beloved” friends.
Today’s account ends with the statement, “Now many of the Jews who had come to Mary and seen what he had done began to believe in him.” This will also be an invitation for us to have true faith in the Lord Jesus and His words, even the most difficult ones, because only He has the words of eternal life, only He is the resurrection and life for those who believe in Him.