The purpose of our Lenten journey is to deepen our relationship with Jesus – to know him more intimately. The journey is about a conversion of mind and heart, but what we find out, time and again, is that our own efforts do not generate this conversion in our lives. All those things that we choose to do – our self-imposed fasts and sacrifices, even if we do them successfully, usually don’t translate into any lasting change in our lives of faith. Why is that? Because we usually choose things that we can do and manage – things that we are, in a sense, comfortable with – things within our power and control. But conversion only happens when we become open to something beyond our power and control – beyond our self-imposed limits. Conversion only happens when we go where we do not want to go and freely choose to embrace what is not of our choosing and what, from our own perspective, seems impossible. It is the journey with another into the unknown land that enables us to see from a new perspective. This crisis that we are living now with the coronavirus pandemic has given us a Lent like no other if we choose to embrace it, because the sacrifices and fasts (things that we have to do without), have in a sense been imposed on us. They are not of our choosing. We started Lent with our own plan of action, and now something else has been asked of us. A friend of mine who is a psychologist who specialized in dealing with people suffering from trauma, has learned from his years of experience that a crisis is not only when someone needs help, but it is an opportunity often for the person to experience deep personal growth and change. The coronavirus has put us in a position to become more aware of our lack of control, our lack of self-sufficiency, our need for others, the fragility of our lives, and especially our need for salvation, i.e., that the certainty of our lives needs to be based on something more than just our physical health and well-being. Faith, a deeper faith, begins when we become aware of our deep need. This is the opportunity that these days are offering us.
The Gospel of Lazarus being raised from the dead by Jesus not only reveals Jesus’ identity as the victor over death who has come to share with us his victory. (The raising of Lazarus is a symbol of Jesus’ own resurrection. What Jesus does on a physical level is a foreshadowing of what he will do in us on a spiritual level.) But this Gospel episode reveals the method that Jesus uses to bring us to a deeper belief in him. It will be very helpful for us to look at the journey we are on right now facing this pandemic in the light of this Gospel. Lazarus, Martha, and Mary were close friends of Jesus. Jesus loved them. And they knew Jesus loved them. When Lazarus falls ill, his sisters send word to Jesus. What is hard for us to understand is Jesus’ reaction. When he got news that Lazarus was ill, “he remained for two days in the place where he was.” Unlike other Gospel episodes of healing, Jesus doesn’t go right away to the sick person or even choose to heal him from a distance. It seems as if he is ignoring the request. But he says, “This illness is not to end in death, but is for the glory of God…” This lack of immediate response must have been perplexing not only for Martha and Mary, but for the disciples who knew how much Jesus loved this family. Jesus is physically absent from those who are suffering, and it doesn’t make sense. Jesus hints at the hidden meaning and purpose of this situation – the opportunity for deeper faith for his disciples. He says, “Lazarus has died. And I am glad for you that I was not there, that you may believe. Let us go to him.” Thomas says, perhaps sarcastically, to the other disciples, “Let us also go to die with him.” As he so often does in his Gospel, John uses Thomas’s words in an ironic fashion to reveal a truth. Going where we are afraid to go – where we think it is impossible to go – is how we die to self. Only by dying to self – facing death – do we come to believe – to discover who Jesus really is for us.
When Jesus finally arrives in Bethany, the Gospel notes, that Lazarus has been in the tomb for four days. What is the significance of four days? In the Jewish understanding at the time, it was believed that the soul remained in the body for three days after death, and that decomposition began after the third day. The point that is being made here is that Lazarus is really dead, totally dead, fully dead, without a doubt, dead. Both Martha and Mary say to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” They are expressing a lack of faith in Jesus, almost blaming him for what has happened. Listen to the way they speak or pray to him. There is a certain hopelessness in what they say as if there is nothing more they think that Jesus could do – that death is really the end. When Martha says to Jesus, “I know he will rise, in the resurrection on the last day”, she is, we could say, “spiritualizing” Jesus’ words, as if “resurrection” is just a nice concept, but not really part of this life; it is just for the “next life” – something that will happen on the “last day.” But Jesus pulls her back to the present and asks her if she believes that resurrection is a present reality – possible here and now, “I am the resurrection and the life… Do you believe this?” He who believes in him lives the resurrection here and now. Faith changes the way one faces reality. When Jesus saw Mary and the others weeping, “he became perturbed and deeply troubled.” What perturbs Jesus and troubles him is not that his friend has died but the lack of faith of his friends who are living. Jesus asks, “Where have you laid him?” In another moment of irony, they say to Jesus, “Come and see.” These are the same words that Jesus used to invite the first disciples to follow him in order to get to know him – in order for them to come to faith. Going to the tomb, facing death, is the path to faith. He becomes perturbed again after the bystanders express despair, bordering on scorn, when they say, “Could not the one who opened the eyes of the blind man have done something so that this man would not have died?” They have put a limit on what Jesus can do, implying that now it is too late for Jesus to do anything. Jesus wants his friends to face death with him. Martha doesn’t want to go there because it will be uncomfortable and unpleasant. When Jesus commands them to “take away the stone”, Martha makes an excuse not to go there. Jesus responds, “Did I not tell you that if you believe you will see the glory of God?” The glory of God is man fully living, and we can’t fully live if we are unwilling to face death. But it is only in confronting our human limits and following Jesus all the way to death – abandoning ourselves to him in this situation – that we discover who he is and the new life that he brings. Jesus cries out, “Lazarus, come out!” and “the dead man came out.” What is most striking in this story is that the only one who responds to Jesus without hesitation or excuses is a dead man. Why? Because Lazarus has nothing of his own power to rely on. He is fully dead to self. He has totally accepted his limits. It is only when we let go of our plans and our own efforts to save things and instead say “yes” to God and the reality before us, that we come to new life.
Faith is not just believing that God exists and calling out to him, but entrusting ourselves to him with the certainty, like Jesus, that God always hears our prayers. A friend of mine in his early 70s with a chronic respiratory condition told me that he has thought more about his mortality in the last week than he has his whole life. This pandemic is making him confront that limit and become more aware of his need for Christ. The condition of this isolation and restriction and the physical absence of others, this limit that we are facing, has made me and others I’ve spoken to, more aware of our need for community and has, in fact, made our belonging stronger, not weaker. Haven’t you reached out to people – perhaps relatives and friends – or heard from others – who you haven’t heard from in some time? The more we face our need and vulnerability, the more we become aware of the hidden bond we have with each other and our need to strengthen that connection with others and with the Lord. This trial is not something that God sends us as a judgment but it is something through which we can judge the state of our faith. The Lord is with us, inviting us to follow him. This is an opportunity to know him on a deeper level. To grow in faith. We are intimate friends of God through the gift of baptism and the Holy Spirit. God loves us as he loves his Son. We belong to him. And he hears our prayers. Growth and change – the new life of the resurrection – come through the experience of a crisis – a cross – in which we choose to unite ourselves, in our weakness, to Christ. May we be open to the opportunity we are being given today because a deeper and a fuller way of living is what awaits.