Fifth Sunday of Lent

You may have heard about the “fire and brimstone” preacher who thundered from the pulpit: “everyone in this parish is going to die.”   A man in the first pew burst out laughing. Annoyed, the preacher roared louder: “I said everyone in this parish is going to die.”   Again, the man burst out laughing.  The preacher, really irritated, shouted: “what’s so funny about that?”  The man in the pew answered: “I don’t belong to this parish.”   Is he in for a surprise!!!

In the lobby of a chapel at Oxford University, there’s a life-size statue of Lazarus bound from head to foot.  Jesus, you remember, cried out: “untie him and let him go.”  That image symbolizes what every church should be about: untying people from the many things that hold them back from their relationship with God.  A powerful prayer whenever we enter a church: untie me from attitudes and behaviors that prevent me from becoming my true self: the likeness of God.

The word of God carries us back to the sixth century before Jesus.  The Hebrews are despondent; the Babylonians conquered them, demolished the temple in Jerusalem and deported many Hebrews to Babylonia. But here Ezekiel proclaims that God will breathe his spirit into the “bones” of the demoralized Hebrews.  They will become new creatures. The image is graphic. The dead bones will knit together; flesh will cover them; and the spirit of God will breathe new life into them.

The author may be challenging us to live as new creatures, called to become like God in our attitudes and behaviors.

Paul in his letter to the Christian community at Rome declares that the spirit of God, who raised Jesus from the dead, dwells within us.  That spirit can energize us so that we will manifest the fruits of the spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

Paul may be asking us to pray that the spirit of God will transform us into “living temples or shrines of God” in our everyday lives.

In the Gospel according to John, Jesus cries out, “Lazarus, come out of the tomb!” And out comes Lazarus, bound with burial wrappings.

Two things always puzzled me about this passage.  If Jesus really loved Lazarus, why didn’t he rush to Lazarus when he first heard the news of his illness.  Instead, Jesus stayed where he was for two more days.

Second, “Jesus wept.”  Probably tears of friendship. Jesus lost a friend and didn’t have a chance to say good-bye. But then Jesus gave Lazarus a “second chance;” he brought Lazarus back to physical life.  I always wondered about two things:  did Lazarus ever describe to his sisters what he experienced when dead four days.  After all, people have described their near death experiences? And second, did  this “second chance” change Lazarus dramatically.

In some ways, we are like Lazarus.  We have been given many “second chances,” so to speak.  But are we doing anything differently with these “second chances?”

Today I would like to reflect on life and grieving: life for Lazarus; and the initial grief of his sisters, Martha and Mary.

Nobel Prize winning playwright Eugene O'Neill, who wrote “Long Day's Journey into Night,” also wrote a play titled "Lazarus Laughed." In the play, people gathered at Lazarus' home. They came to mourn. But now, Lazarus is raised from the dead and the grieving is transformed into rejoicing. Lazarus' father proposes a toast: "To my son, Lazarus, whom a blessed miracle has brought back from death."

Lazarus interrupts, "No! There is no death." And the folks holding their wine goblets echo as a question: "There's no death?"  And Lazarus laughs, and says, happily, "There is only life. I heard the heart of Jesus laughing in my own heart. 'There is only eternal life,' it said. 'Laugh, laugh with me. Fear is no more.' " Fear not, for the Lord is with you. Fear not, for the Lord is telling you, "If anyone believes in me, even though they die, they will live, and whoever lives and believes in me will never die."

There it is, folks.  Jesus conquered death.  Life leaped out of death.  Nothing will ever separate us from the love of God, to paraphrase Paul's words to the Romans. Yes, we are alive with the life of God.  We are shrines of the spirit, whose hidden power equips us with his gifts so that we can become our true selves in the likeness of God: gifts of wisdom to focus on what truly matters; understanding and knowledge, to enter deeply into the mysteries of God; counsel to make good moral decisions; fortitude to stand up for what is right; piety to give God praise and worship; and fear of the Lord: a healthy concern never to lose that relationship with God.

Yes, there's eternal life.  But how reconcile eternal life with earthly grief.

C.S. Lewis wrote a book titled “The Problem of Pain,” which discusses theoretically the problem of evil.  It's an eternal question highlighted in the biblical book of Job.   If God is good, why does God let evil happen?  God never answers Job's question: why do the good suffer and the wicked prosper? There's only silence.

C.S. Lewis wrote another book titled “A Grief Observed,” exploring the process of grieving in the dying and death of his wife only three years after their marriage.  One of the last things his wife said was, “I am at peace with God.”  Lewis details his thoughts about life without his wife, and his anger and  bewilderment at God.  He felt a sense of distance from God, a deadening silence, what the 16th century Carmelite John of the Cross called the “dark night of the soul.”

Lewis had doubts.  He asked, is this what God is really like? But gradually some of the clouds of grief began to lift with the passage of time. Anger and doubt gave way to acceptance and peace and faith. Lewis describes this feeling like the breaking through of the sun after an overcast morning.

In some ways, Lewis wrote, God had to shatter his youthful faith which was like a “house of cards” so that He could fashion an adult faith.

Lewis came to realize it's healthy to think about mortality from time to time.  It puts things in perspective and reminds us what truly matters.  It compels us to re-order our priorities, to focus on our deeply held values and to celebrate the joy and purpose of the gift of life.

Life is a pilgrimage, a journey, a passage. We have to let go of the past in order to go forward, and to let go is to die a little.  Yes, we let go, and eventually we let go of our earthly life so that we can become transfigured, like Jesus Christ before us, into a new kind of spiritual embodiment that St. Paul so wonderfully describes: no eye can see, no ear can hear, no mind can imagine what God has prepared for those who love him.

We come back to Jesus and Lazarus and ourselves.  We might shout to Jesus in light of today's gospel: untie me from the attitudes and behaviors that prevent me from becoming my true self: the likeness of God.  

Life and death.  We are forever changing and everything around us is changing. But change involves loss, and loss involves grief, and grief involves pain.

And yet our faith proclaims that life leaps out of death; in the agony of our Good Fridays is the ecstasy of Easter.

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