Homily offered by Father Matthew C. Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Fifth Sunday in Lent, 2020.
Saint John’s account of the raising of Lazarus from the dead perhaps strikes us as a passage of scripture that belongs as a Lesson during Eastertide. The story, after all, is a kind of resurrection story. Lazarus is dead, Jesus hears. And after being dead four days, he is raised from the dead, his hands and feet bound with bandages, and his face wrapped with a cloth. This parallels, closely but by no means exactly, the account of the resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ—not four days for Him, but three. We can be sure that the young Church in the Upper Room were inspired by the Holy Ghost to remember this miracle—and in John’s account of the Gospel, the raising of Lazarus is the seventh of seven miracles performed by Jesus. But for us, the Church, we encounter this story not in Eastertide, but in Lent. And the reason is because of what the passage from John, along with the especially the passage from the prophet Ezekiel, teaches us about what the Christian faith means when we speak of “being dead.”
It is a detail we are apt to miss, especially in such a length Gospel passage—44 verses. But before leaving to go to Lazarus, and to Martha and Mary Magdalene, Jesus says to His disciples with Him: “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I go to awake him out of sleep.” The disciples miss Our Lord’s meaning, for they respond, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will recover.” Saint John underscores their missing of Jesus’s subtle teaching when the evangelist adds, “Jesus had spoken of his death, but they thought that he meant taking rest in sleep.” What has Our Lord’s subtle teaching here? It was that what eyes of the flesh perceive as death, the eyes of Our Lord, and presumably the eyes of Christian faith, see in fact as sleep; that physical death, the end of the course of our moral life, is not the end. This is captured in our funeral liturgy; the Preface for the Eucharist read, “for to thy faithful people, O Lord, life is changed, not ended.” When we die, we fall asleep in the Lord, but our life is not ended. Jesus knew from the first that this episode with Lazarus provided Him a true teaching moment: It is all for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified by means of it; and, as He says later, that all those witnessing the moment in faith may believe that Jesus was sent by the Father.
Lazarus was not dead, despite the stench of four days in a tomb. And likewise, the house of Israel were not dead, despite them saying of themselves, “our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost.” What was the house of Israel but slaves to sin, in Saint Paul’s words to the Church of Rome? Sin leads to death: physical death in many cases, to be sure; but from the perspective of Christian faith, one can be perfectly alive and functioning in a physical sense but dead to God through sin. Dead, and enslaved, which means unable to free ourselves from enslavement. As the Apostle says, “the end of those things is death.” Physically alive but spiritually dead is enslavement to sin, and also asleep, yet to be free is to wake up to enlightenment through Christ.
And yet, we rejoice because of the free gift of God, His gift of eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. And we receive this gift through resurrection. But whose resurrection shows the gift? Certainly our Lord’s, for His resurrection was made manifest to the young Church in the forty days after the empty tomb, experiences the young Church carried with them into the Upper Room before the Coming of the Holy Ghost. But I ask again, whose resurrection shows the gift? In the story of the raising of Lazarus, Jesus was alive: the gift of resurrection was entirely shown through the resurrection not of Jesus but of Lazarus. And in the same way, for us, Jesus is already alive—and has never not been alive, for He was begotten of His Father before all worlds. And the gift of resurrection is not shown by Him—for He is always risen—but through us.
And so this is the teaching for us to carry with us into the last days of Lent and Holy Week: The resurrection of Christ is shown to the world not through the resurrection of Christ but in His resurrection through us, we being raised in a resurrection like His, showing ourselves to the world as Him, as His ambassadors, His agents, as the Sacrament of His Hope for the world. Our Lord, through His resurrection, puts His Spirit within us, and raises us from the graves of slavery to sin—that we shall live, and know that the Lord has spoken, “Let there be light,”—and that we have responded in kind like Blessed Mother Mary did: Let it be to us according to Thy Word.