Staring death in the face

On the Readings for March 29, 2020, the Fifth Sunday of Lent

Detail from "The Raising of Lazarus" (1310-11) by Duccio, [WikiArt.org]

Readings:
• 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 originally appeared in the April 10, 2011, edition of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper.)


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About Carl E. Olson 1145 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. 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.

5 Comments

  1. Resurrection is succinctly juxtaposed to Death by Carl Olson. Christ’s Resurrection from the Dead vanquished Satan author of death and Death itself. Without the Resurrection our faith is useless (the Apostle). A conservative Jew may argue without immortality Man remains capable of good. Reason why so many wonderful physicians, musicians, scientists are from that persuasion. True. Human nature is ordained toward good, which possesses its own viability. To direct oneself, in a world largely in pursuit of evil self interest to altruism and with it perhaps hope for greater good, if only a sliver of such that residue of hope is mysteriously present. The Apostle exemplary Jew turned pariah for Christ understood faith was empty sans evidence that sin was overcome by the Blood of the Author of Life. Acts of good without that faith devolve into forms of social practicality themselves a good though vacant of the ultimate end of all good. That Ultimate End revealed to us in the ineffable act of supreme good Christ’s Resurrection. His incomprehensible response to condemnation to death on the Cross [you and I and all condemned Him]. Augustine calls it “God’s most marvelous work”.

  2. I pray that Jesus will manifest His power and, on the day Of His Resurrection, obliterate the coronavirus entirely so that we may once again have the Sacraments.

  3. Good to have listened to the Angelus address of the Holy Father too, who focuses on the tears of The Lord ( wish that image of the Risen Lord in the library was that of the Vilnius Fatherly icon of The Lord – well , all of us only seeing as through dark glasses here ) .
    The timely focus on those words – ‘ And Jesus wept ‘ , how The Lord , in His humanity comes to help us to see and trust that He knows , in His compassion , our sorrows and fears ..
    from all the divisions and separations of precious and holy relationships, which has been so much a part of the history of all humanity since The Fall ..
    Lazarus too , Lord knew that he was going to be raised , yet , facing exile and having to hide from the envious authorities , thus likely from own family too may be ; Martha might have went with Lazarus , to care for him, thus only Mary Magdalene left …and Bl.Mother too would have missed them , Lord thus also likely weeping for her sorrow as well … a sorrow that has been foreseen and iconified in the weeping of Rachel .. a figure , in spite of the error of her having fallen into idolatry , honored by Jewish people ,as a Mother figure ..a people who too only see through dark glasses , thus not seeing the tears of The True Mother , for their separation .. as well as the tears for every unjust separation, brought on by the darkness of idolatry and greed in human hearts ..at pandemic proportions in our times ..

  4. Wonderful piece.

    Time after time, the Lord demolishes expectations and exposes conventional piety as the merest simulacrum of faith.

    He is not satisfied with bland niceties or lip-service affirmations.

    He demands full-bore, all-out commitment from everyone He encounters. And He gives nothing less — not one ounce less — to us.

    As any crucifix can attest.

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