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Cardinal Joseph Tobin

Homily for the fifth Sunday of Lent

During this season of fasting, voluntary or involuntary, God provides a rich and incredibly encouraging meal today, the Fifth Sunday of Lent. We are understandably drawn to the Gospel, the long account of the raising of Lazarus, the beloved friend of Jesus.

Today this story cannot help but resonate in experiences of us all, yesterday or today. Who of us has never mourned the death of a beloved? How many of us have felt cheated of the opportunity to say good-bye, or – especially today – been tortured by the incompleteness of the funeral? How many of us have whispered or wailed to God the jagged rebuke, “Lord, if you had been here…”.

Yes, the long story of the raising of Lazarus can and does connect with many of our emotions. But it also should raise questions, crucial questions that can help us enter more deeply and – yes – more hopefully into the sacred mysteries. Questions like these: Why didn’t Jesus come immediately to the bedside of his sick friend? Why did he weep – the reading mentions twice that he wept. Was it empathy or frustration? Where was he really leading his friends and critics?

We learn at the beginning of the reading, Lazarus is ill. But, for Jesus, that disease will not end in death but will serve to give glory to God. Therein lies the key to Jesus' message to us: we are not sick to death. Or rather, death is not necessarily fatal. Especially when Jesus is involved. Then a greater force is at work, a force stronger than death, a force capable of saying, “Take away the stone,” despite the stench of the one who has been buried for four days. A power capable of shouting, “Lazarus, come out!” It is the strength of Jesus, the one who says of himself that, “he is the resurrection and the life.”

Like last Sunday’s story of the healing of the blind man, the point is not so much the miracle but who brings it about. We return to the Gospel and remember that, within days of these events, Jesus will die, be buried and rise again. What’s the difference between the two resurrection stories? They are infinitely different.

The resurrection of Jesus is a resurrection forward, what happens to Lazarus takes backward – back to the life he knew. Jesus dies no more; Lazarus eventually died. Lazarus stumbles out of the tomb, still bound by the burial garments, and needs others to set him free. Jesus needs no such assistance. His shroud and burial cloth have been folded and cast aside.

The power of Jesus confronts the two deaths we can suffer: the death of the body and the death of the heart. He is the resurrection and the life, both here and hereafter.

We need to read this story carefully and let the words of Jesus reach our hearts. We may well come to understand that we are deathly ill. We understand that pride, envy, the desire for independence, contempt, and so many other viruses affect our being and are slowly killing us. While Covid-19 will eventually be conquered, after so many years of science and research, we still do not have medicines that truly cure the diseases that leave us as the walking dead. We end up living a death-life that leads nowhere. We curl up into ourselves and move away from the one who is the source of life.

Jesus invites us to come out of the cave, out of the pit in which we’ve ended up. He invites us to recognize that we do not have the strength to exit on our own. He reaches out to us and brings us into light - he also said, “I am the light of the world” (Jn 12,1). And, although at first we cannot walk well because of the burial clothes that cling to us, if we dare to leave the tomb we soon discover that Jesus is the sun that warms us the most, that it is a pleasure to be by his side, that he is the bread that gives life, that he is the vine and we are the branches. Jesus will use others to free us from the self-imposed bonds. After all, he commissioned his disciples to “raise the dead,” those who have suffered the death of the heart.

In this way, Jesus fulfills the ancient promise of the vision of Ezekiel: to free people from their graves and to give us a land to live forever. In Jesus we already live according to the Spirit. The force of sin that kills us can no longer harm us. Jesus is not merely a messianic wonderworker; he is our Savior, the victor over sin and death.

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