The Raising of Lazarus

10 April 2011

Westminster Abbey                Lent 5

Let us also go that we may die with him

Today is the beginning of  Passiontide when we shall repeat the story that some of us have heard so many times, the story of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. Has repetition dulled it? A story repeated, says the great Brazilian writer, Reuben Alves, is never the same and the philosopher, Hieraclitus says, ‘You never step into the same river twice, for fresh waters are always flowing over you’ and Alves adds ‘Stories are like poems they are not to be understood. Their savour is inexhaustible.’  

So we listen afresh and learn afresh and like St. Thomas we pledge ourselves to go with him, to enter into the saving events. Today in the story of the Raising of Lazarus the curtain rises. It is noteworthy that the ministry of Jesus begins with a wedding and ends with a funeral.  Whether or not the story is strictly historical or not, it points us to the death and rising of Jesus himself, and makes it clear that this event of the raising of Lazarus was the principal reason for the hostility of the Jewish authorities. ‘Let us go that we may die with him’, says Thomas, and we seek to enter afresh into the saving events.

Am I saved?  I ask myself.  Is the world  really saved/redeemed?  How would it all look if it were? We sing the Passiontide hymns, say the prayers about the death of Jesus redeeming/saving us and the world. But looking inside myself and around the world I  think, would it really be like this if  that were all true?  What about all the mess we see, the intractable violence and misery, our own sinfulness? In this regard I remember with some amusement  that someone said, hearing nuns’ confessions was like being stoned to death with popcorn! But there is nothing trivial about sin in any form.

A few days ago I was re-reading a book whose author, W. H. Vanstone, shares a dream. A garbage worker had collected a vast mountain of rubbish of all sorts, a horrible sight. Yet at the bottom of it all there was, unaccountably, a beautiful face. He knew it was the face of God: God mixed up in the mess of human life, in the struggles of humankind. ‘O love, how deep, how broad, how high! How passing thought and fantasy’, as we shall soon sing in the offertory hymn.

In 2000 I happened to be in Melbourne for Holy Week and Easter.  On Good Friday the Chaplain of one of the prisons in the city preached for us in our chapel. He told us that normally at the prison chapel services the lifers, those who had committed the most serious offences and those who were in prison for lesser crimes were separated, entering the chapel by different doors and sitting apart. But on Good Friday they all went in through the same door together. The symbolism won’t be lost on any of us.

Looking at the Gospel story: One of the problems facing the early Church was: How is the death of believers to be understood and faced? What was the real meaning of life and of death’s brutal reality. Death is temporary because it is finally overcome by the Resurrection of Jesus, they believed.  Even so, though Lazarus is raised he will have to die again. The resurrection and Eternal life which springs from it overcome death but do not abolish it.  And Faith is not theological assent but transformation and commitment.  Do you believe, Jesus asks Martha? Come to believe, and from that new horizon you will understand both life and death in a new way.

In this story of the Raising of Lazarus I am touched, challenged and encouraged by a number of facts:

  1. The message of the two sisters seems a perfect model of Intercession:  He whom you love is sick.  In trust we can just lay our concerns for people and situations before God and leave the outcome to God.
  2. When Jesus meets Martha and later Mary the cry on both their lips is, If ONLY you had been here. Most of us have a long list of IF ONLYS, our regrets, our disappointments, our sorrows, our failures.  We might write a list of them this Passiontide and leave them to the safe-keeping of Jesus crucified and risen.  Archbishop Rowan in one of his sermons, Rebuilding the Ruins,  speaks of rebuilding our lives with the bricks of our ‘ruins’, our failures, regrets, sorrows….
  3. Seeing the grief and confusion all around him, Jesus wept. This is the shortest sentence in the Bible, the most astounding one too. The Early Church would not have invented such a fact. There are various theories about this weeping of Jesus and you can look them up in a commentary, but for me I see God in our flesh weeping with the world’s grief.
  4. Perhaps the most dramatic episode in the whole Gospel is Jesus’ calling, some say screaming, Lazarus come forth. Come out. Leave the tomb, leave death, re-enter life.  It is stating the obvious to say that he calls out to each of us, N… come forth.  But what would it look like if we obeyed this call, if we were to receive the present not from the past with all its IF ONLYS but from the future enclosed in the Resurrection. God’s future can and will break into the mess, the grief  and all else with goodness, with hope, with new possibilities.  The Hebrew word for salvation, yasha means to be wide and spacious, to develop without hindrance.  In both testaments salvation carries with it tonalities of being made whole. Cf. the story of the Valley of Dry Bones…

So to the question Am I saved? Is the world saved/redeemed? I think we can be positive about it but recognise that nothing is complete yet. We are on the way, moving towards the goal.

As we move on May the life-giving Cross be the source of all our joy and peace.

Sister Judith CSC