I am the resurrection and the life, says the Lord;
whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will never die.
It is still cold, and snowy. It also is Passion Sunday, the fifth Sunday of Lent. The season is almost over and last week’s rose (pink) vestments gave hint of that. The mood shifts from somber to a joyful anticipation. The light or weather suggests the same. The cold occasionally gives way to warmth. The snow shifts to rain, and darkness is being replaced by daylight. There are a couple more weeks before I can replace my fast with a feast, or at least I get back the little things I have given up. It’s all good news.
Even the readings of Sunday have a morbid optimism. They are dark readings in that they deal with death, but there is a bright side too. The first reading is one Tim Burton would have been fond of. It involves graves and bodies rising from the dead. That director is famous for his morbid and offbeat animated imagery of the dead. Beetlejuice comes to mind. I am confident Tim would have a field day with the raising of Lazarus too. I wonder how many can identify with his style, is the director that far off from most people’s concepts of these readings?
The first reading, with the rising of the bodies from the grave Ez 37:12-14 has more to the story than is told in the little snippet of the daily reading. The graveyard is not simply a town cemetery, it is more a battlefield graveyard. Those bodies are people lost in battle. They are people who died with a conviction, they fought and died with a purpose. They have a similarity to Arlington or Gettysburg. They died with a cause, they fought for the God of Israel. That God is telling the remnant people that those did not die in vain. The cause that they fought for will prove to be victorious, and in that context they will rise again. Mr. Burton got his ideas from somewhere.
The Raising of Lazarus contains some similar elements. Jn 11:1-45 For one it tells that Jesus prepared his disciples for His Resurrection. The account also tells that Jesus challenged the view of life and death that those present had. One interesting detail is that Thomas and all of his doubts is present at this event. Skepticism was present and it is recorded, that is an important part of the story. They had their doubts, and this was something difficult for the audience to accept.
When John documents this occurrence he makes a point of describing Lazarus as truly and completely dead. First Jesus waits to make His journey to the grave. Second, Lazarus is in the grave for four days. Third, the stench is mentioned. The unanimous decision by all involved is Lazarus is D-E-A-D.
One of the details, the four days, requires an explanation. In that timeframe it was believed that a person’s soul had hovered about the corpse for three days. By the fourth day that soul would have left for a distant place in the stars. That is one of the concepts Jesus challenges. Jesus dies not separate death from life in the extreme way the ancients did. With Him the soul is not distant and unapproachable. Jesus allows death, and all it constrains, to be conquered. He battles some cultural barriers, and those had a huge effect in those who were left behind. Jesus liberated the dead, and in doing so also liberated their loved ones. In giving life to Lazarus, Jesus also gives life to Martha and Mary. In bringing Lazarus back to life, Jesus requires that people participate. He asks that the stone be removed from the grave, they must move it themselves. They object of the stench. Thank of that smell. Smells are something you know is present even if they are not visible. In the temple and in churches they often signify Gods presence, I am thinking of incense. I also think of the custom of opening a window in a room where someone has died. Not to remove a stench, but to set them free.
The final thing Jesus does is ask that they unbind Lazarus, remove the cloths that bind his hands and feet. Poetically he is shackled by death , and everything that was attached to that state in life. All that constrained Lazarus had to be removed for him to enjoy the fullness of life. Those barriers affected Martha and Mary as much as they affected Lazarus. They had to participate in bringing Lazarus back from the dead. This will become important at Easter.. .
Lets add a little more:
While this gospel account deals with a lot of the perceptions of life and death in ancient civilizations (Jewish, Roman, Greek, and others) there is also some relevance for this season of Lent. In ancient cultures people were very attuned to both the death of the body and the soul, and they were independent of one another. A body could live while its soul died, a soul could live while the body died, both body and soul could live, and both could also die. Which is of these choices is relevant today? Lent is not a season about the after-life, it is about this life. Relevant today is the soul that is endangered, souls die because of sin. While all sin taxes the soul, mortal sin is what kills a soul. The good-news from the gospel account of Lazarus is that like him, souls can be brought back to life. They can be rejuvenated, and that is at least one goal of the Lenten traditions of prayer, fast, and almsgiving. They are to strengthen the soul. Like during the raising of Lazarus they are tangible actions we can take to rejuvenate a sunken soul. There is one other that is of supreme importance, that does not simply rejuvenate but brings a soul back from death. Confession, the binding and loosening of sin. It is what brings a soul back to life through the forgiveness of sin.
With the Lord there is mercy and fullness of redemption.