5th Sunday of Lent
Thus says the LORD GOD: O my people, I will open your graves
and have you rise from them….. Ez. 37:12
The resurrection of the dead is clearly prophesized in Ezekiel and is confirmed and manifested in the Gospels three times before the Passion and most wonderfully on the third day after the Passion when Jesus rises from the dead. Yet literally billions of people still do not believe this in our day, 2000 years after these events. So we might address the same question to ourselves that Jesus put to Martha “Do you believe this?” But what exactly are we asked to believe? We are asked not simply to believe that Jesus Himself raised people from the dead, or rose Himself on Easter Sunday. We are asked to believe much more, a great deal more.
In this Gospel, Jesus is not simply asking the holy women whether they believe that He can raise Lazarus from the dead. He is asking them to believe something much. much greater, that is, to believe that He is Himself, as He says, the Resurrection and the Life, and for that very reason to believe that Jesus will raise all mankind to life again at the end of time. Moreover, just as in his miracles of raising the dead while He was on earth, Christian faith believes that Christ will accomplish this, as St Paul says, in a flash, in a twinkling of an eye (1 Cor, 15:52), at the end of time, simply by a command (John 5:24-25) in exactly the same way that God created in the first place. And He will have the power to do this because He is Himself the Resurrection and the Life, that is, the very source of Life and Resurrection because He is the creative Word of God in human form, the Son of God made man.
Thus the Gospel account of the raising of Lazarus becomes for us a true prophetic sign of this most startling and important truth for all us mere mortals. Every one of us is going to die, true. And we will all die precisely because we do not yet fully possess, in our flesh, His Eternal Life in this world, because we are still true sons and daughters of our first parents. How tragic, if we relect on this, that our first parents could have transmitted this very Life to us, in all its power, had they not sinned and transmitted death to us instead.
St. Paul confirms this truth: that even when Christ lives within us, because His Spirit dwells within us, nonetheless “the body is dead because of sin” even while the soul possesses Eternal life through the Spirit. But in what sense does St. Paul mean that the body is “dead” even now? It is dead in the sense that it is still mortal and thus subject to corruption, both physical corruption and moral corruption, for in this world it is remains subject to the power of sin, even when the soul is truly righteous and is truly clinging to God’s will. Thus, the Christian too, even when restored to God’s Grace, the very gift of Eternal Life in its seed form, as it were, nonetheless is still subject to death. This is true simply because the body is still not fully in possession of Eternal Life since the body is not yet fully subject to the Spirit, and it will not be so subjected until it is raised by Christ truly incorruptible.
Today’s readings address this great mystery and paradox of man, subject to death but called to life eternal, and made capable of this gift through the Lord who is this Life itself in the flesh of man, the Incarnate Life of God, the Resurrection and the Life.
Moreover, the one who truly believes in Him, as John says earlier in chapter 5 of his Gospel, by that very act of belief has already passed from death to life, at least in his soul, even while his body remains subject to death because it is not yet fully subjected to the Spirit. This is our Christian faith. Christ is Life, is Eternal Life. Thus the resurrection of Lazarus not only fulfills the prophecy of Ezekiel – I will open your graves and have you rise from them – but also confirms the very words of Jesus in Chapter 5 of John’s Gospel where he declares the truth about Himself. Let us then recall that early prophetic teaching of Jesus, which is key to understanding today’s Gospel:
Amen, amen, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes in the one who sent me has eternal life and will not come to condemnation, but has passed from death to life.
Amen, amen, I say to you, the hour is coming and is now here when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live. For just as the Father has life in himself, so also he gave to his Son the possession of life in himself. …
Do not be amazed at this, because the hour is coming in which all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and will come out, those who have done good deeds to the resurrection of life, but those who have done wicked deeds to the resurrection of condemnation.
There you have the words of Jesus about his possession of the Divine Life — for just as the Father has life in himself, so also he gave to his Son the possession of life in himself. Indeed, Jesus goes beyond a claim to simply possess Divine Life, for he says to Martha that “I am the resurrection and the life.” He will later say quite something similar to His Apostles, “I and the way, the Truth and the Life,” which he says now to Martha and her friends. But what does it mean? It means that Jesus, because He is the Resurrection and the Life, because He is the divine creative Word, He has the power to raise all men, body and soul, to life. Those who believe in Him will be raised to Glory, Eternal Life, because they believe in Him, while those who do not believe in Him, and hence die in their sins, will be raised to “eternal condemnation.” But all will be raised.
So today the question is once again directed to us, do you and I, truly believe all this, do we truly believe that Jesus is the Resurrection and the Life? Do we truly believe that He is the Word through whom all things were created and by whom all man will be raised and judged one day? Everything that ultimately matters for us, for our salvation, depends upon our answer to that question. And we do not answer that question of faith merely by words, but must answer it with our lives as well. The faith that Jesus demands here is not simply a matter of a simple verbal assent, but also a surrender of our whole person, body and soul, to His Spirit. Those who answer like Margaret, by their words and by their lives, “Yes, Lord. I have come to believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God,” will surely rise with the fullness of Eternal Life to Eternal Glory.
But those who refuse to believe and who lead unrepented, wicked lives will rise to life, but they will be the living dead because neither in body nor in soul will they possess Eternal Life, God’s Eternal life, which alone is able to save man from condemnation and eternal loss. They will not see God, but they will certainly hear his condemnation: depart from me, depart from me into eternal darkness and a life without meaning but without end. That is what is at stake in our lives and choices.
Neither of these responses, belief or unbelief, is due to fate or necessity; none of this is foreordained for anyone. Man ultimately freely chooses his own destiny because man has been created free to do so. In this life, to the very last, everyone can always respond to the grace of God and believe, and we know that God has become man and died to make that positive response possible and effective. Our Savior raised men from the tomb while He was on earth, and He continues to raise to Life men who are spiritually dead in a marvelous way through faith, through Baptism and the Sacrament of Penance. And even at the last moment if possible He can raise us through Extreme Unction as we used to rightly call it. Indeed, God desires our salvation far more than we do, especially because His Son paid the ultimate price to make it possible. He will not reject us, if we do not reject his mercy by our failure to believe and to repent. Surely that hope has to be the deepest message of the Cross.