The Power of God’s Love and Mercy
Fifth Sunday of Lent. Fr John Patrick Kenrick reflects on how the raising of Lazarus from the dead throws light on the meaning of Christ’s death and resurrection for each of us.
What has the Resurrection of Christ to do with all other human beings, both those who have lived and those yet to be born? The readings today help us to answer that question. They tell us that Christ’s Resurrection should be seen in the context of the whole narrative of salvation. At the centre of human history there is not just an event but the Word of God, a divine person.
For Ezekiel it was always God’s intention to raise his people from their graves. We could take this to mean that it is simply God’s nature to raise the dead because God is the life-giver. Ezekiel speaks of the Lord putting his life giving spirit within us – echoes there of the book of Genesis. It is not surprising then, that St Paul also speaks of God’s spirit living within us. He identifies the Spirit of God with the Spirit of Christ and it is that Spirit within us that will once more give life to our bodies.
The gospel of the raising of Lazarus is particularly helpful because in this human drama we see in Christ the effective power of God’s love and mercy which can conquer death and natural corruption. Each of us is in fact Lazarus, the friend loved by Christ needing to be raised.
The other characters in the story remind us that this is no fanciful tale. Jesus was courting danger in that trip to Judaea and we have the plaintive words of Martha to confirm that Lazarus was well and truly dead.
Jesus summons Lazarus from the grave with a divine authority. His words have a simple confidence about them, ‘Lazarus come out!’ There are no long entreaties for God to raise Lazarus – there is just a prayer of thanksgiving. Jesus knows the outcome because he is one with the Father.
For St John the raising of Lazarus is significant for a number of reasons; the raising of Lazarus prefigures the resurrection of Christ himself and it is the event which leads directly to Jesus’ death. But more than that, the actions of the Son reveal the will of the Father. God not only desires to dwell among us but to lift us up – he really means, in Ezekiel’s words, ‘to raise us from our graves’. The spiritual death from which we are to be raised is the rejection of this divine initiative – when they hear of the raising of Lazarus the Sanhedrin will plot to kill Jesus.
And so ironically the warnings of the disciples come true. By going to Bethany to raise Lazarus Jesus does indeed seal his own fate but in his death he will pour out his Spirit on all who believe in him.
The raising of Lazarus is enlightening but it does not answer all our questions about the Resurrection of the dead. As Martha herself points out, this is not the general resurrection. This is something which prefigures that and presumably Lazarus had to ‘die’ again. How, we may ask, did he face his inevitable second death?
That question may be missing the point. In death Lazarus had heard a divine command and he recognized in that voice the voice of a close friend. Jesus was not simply reanimating a corpse. He was doing something much more significant than that! It was surely for the sake of Martha and Mary that Lazarus was raised from the dead. Jesus was restoring Lazarus to his close family and to his friends. And since family and friends await us also in the life to come, death is no longer something to fear for God’s purpose must lie in reunion.
Sometimes the world around us seems quite chaotic but there is nothing more chaotic than our own death and dissolution. But if we believe that God has created us for a purpose then historical events only matter in so far as they affect the way that we respond to God. It matters that people are being born and that people are dying; it matters even more whether people are being born to a new life in Christ or have yet to respond to His commandment to emerge from our spiritual graves.