Staring Death in the Face

On the Readings for April 6, 2014, the Fifth Sunday of Lent


• Ez. 37:12-14
• Psa. 130:1-2, 3-4, 5-6, 7-8
• Rom. 8:8-11
• Jn. 11:1-45

“Lazarus, come out!” 

With that simple, dramatic command, the Incarnate Word spoke words that demonstrated his power over death. It concludes one of the most fascinating stories in the Fourth Gospel, St. John’s account of the last of seven miraculous “signs” performed by Jesus Christ.

Let’s start at the beginning. Jesus’ close friend, Lazarus, the brother of Mary and Martha, had been very ill. When Jesus received word that Lazarus was on the cusp of death, he did not hurry to his friend’s deathbed, but waited two more days before journeying to Bethany, just a couple of miles from Jerusalem. The illness, he told the disciples, would not “end in death, but is for the glory of God, that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” Those words could also be applied, in an even deeper way, to the sufferings and death of Jesus himself. 

And there is no doubt that Jesus was completely aware of his approaching Passion. In fact, the death and raising of Lazarus—Jesus’ final miracle before his Passion—set the stage for the death and resurrection of Jesus himself. This incredible sign in Bethany was a promise and a foreshadowing of what was to come in Jerusalem. It was, so to speak, a warning shot to death itself. “The One who is making his way toward death,” wrote Fr. Hans Urs von Balthasar, “wishes to stare death in the face in advance. That is why he deliberately lets Lazarus die despite the pleas of his friends.” It was also so that the disciples and the others present would believe, for the love of God engenders faith and provides hope in the face of darkness, suffering, and death. 

This is evident in the moving words of Martha, who expressed some bewilderment at the delayed arrival of Jesus—“Lord, if you had been here…”—but then remarked, with fragile faith, “But even now I know that whatever you ask of God, God will give you.” To which Jesus simply stated, “Your brother will rise.”

St. Peter Chrysologus wrote of this exchange: “This woman does not believe, but she is trying to believe, while her unbelief is disturbing her belief.” It is a perfect description of so many of us, wanting to believe more and to believe more deeply, but struggling to believe amid the tumult of this earthly life.  

Martha expressed her belief in “the resurrection on the last day”, but it sounds, I think, somewhat forced and obligatory. She knew what she should believe, but at that moment, she wasn’t sure what she believed. Which is why Jesus uttered these profound and transforming words: “I am the resurrection and the life, whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” Martha’s faith, which had been tattered and fluttering in the cold winds of death, was revived and enlivened. Asked by the Word if she believes his words, she confessed her faith, just like Peter: “I have come to believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God…” (cf. Matt 16:16). 

The Gospel of John is often said to focus mostly on the divinity of Jesus. But it contains one of the most poignant, human moments in all of the Gospels, captured in three simple words: “And Jesus wept.” This was not, however, the loud and emotional wailing that usually accompanied death and funerals, but the tears of a man who bears sorrow but also holds the keys to life. 

The Son sent by the Father had entered the world as a babe in a dark cave. Obeying the will of the Father, he would soon be carried as a man into a dark tomb for burial. But there, standing between those two events, he stared into the cave and the jaws of death, and cried out in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!”

And, we believe and know, the dead man came out. Alive.

(This “Opening the Word” column orgiinally appeared in the April 10, 2011, edition of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper.)

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About Carl E. Olson 1227 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.