By Msgr. Owen Campion
Fifth Sunday of Lent
The Book of Ezekiel provides the first reading for this weekend. Even a quick reading of the history of ancient Israel shows that there were precious few periods of prosperity and calm. Indeed, only the reigns of David and Solomon might properly be considered as truly good times.
Some times were more trying than others were. Certainly, generations endured miserable times in Babylon, confined in wretchedness, taunted and abused as a minority. Understandably, these Jewish exiles yearned for the day when they could return to their homeland.
Ezekiel built upon this theme of hoping and expectation. As did all the prophets, he saw a release from Babylonian bondage not as an accident or a happy turn of events. He saw it as a result of God’s mercy and of fidelity to God. Thus, in this reading, the Lord speaks, promising to breathe new life into the defeated, dejected people.
St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans furnishes the second reading. Rome was the absolute center for everything in the first-century-A.D. Mediterranean world, the political, economic and cultural heart of the vast, powerful empire. It was a sophisticated city.
Rome’s inhabitants came from everywhere, having brought with them a great variety of customs and beliefs.
Paul wrote to the Christian Romans, among whom eventually he would die as a martyr. Many of them would also be martyred.
This reading stresses two spiritual realities. The Christian is linked with God in Christ. So, the Christian possesses the very life of the Holy Spirit, a life that will never die.
For its third reading, the church this weekend presents the Gospel of John. Jesus went to Bethany, then a separate community but now a part of greater Jerusalem, summoned by Martha and Mary, who were anxious about their brother Lazarus, the Lord’s friend, who had died.
When Jesus at last arrived, Lazarus was dead. In fact, he had been dead for several days. Putrefaction had begun. Responding to the sisters’ faith, the Lord restores Lazarus to life.
Several important themes occur in the passage. First, of course, is the active, life-giving love of Jesus. In the mystery of the Incarnation, Jesus feels and expresses human love. Secondly, the faith of Martha and Mary is unqualified.
The evangelist sees a parallel between the resurrection of Jesus and the restoration of earthly life to Lazarus. In each account, mourning women are essential parts of the story. A stone closes the tomb. The body is dressed, and a face cloth, customary in Jewish burials of the time, covers the face. Finally, in each story, faith and human limitation have important roles.
Next week, on Palm Sunday, the church will invite us to learn and to worship in the most intense liturgical days of its year. Calling us to Christ, and with ancient drama and the most compelling symbolism, it will proclaim Jesus as Savior and as Risen Lord.
This weekend, the church prepares us for this experience, giving us the beautiful and wondrous story of Lazarus.
Echoing the Lord’s own resurrection, today’s message is clear. If we are united with Jesus, as Lazarus and his sisters were united, then in God’s power we will have everlasting life. However, this eternal life will occur only if we seek Jesus, and if we seek Jesus with the faith uncompromisingly displayed by Martha. Only Jesus can give us life.
The other readings reinforce this theme. For everyone, life can be taxing. Death awaits all. Ezekiel assures us that God will give us true life. It will be the life of holiness, the life that never ends.
St. Paul insisted that this divine life abides only in Jesus. So, lovingly, as Lent progresses, as Lent anticipates its culmination, the church calls us to Jesus, the Lord of life.