From death to life

 

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In the previous article Thoughts on the Passion of the Church we concluded that the Church – that is all the faithful followers of Christ on Earth – will have to undergo her own Passion before the glorious return of Christ.

The Gospel gives a detailed account of the Passion of Our Lord, His last days. As it happens often in Scripture, important spiritual lessons are contained between counterpoints or what I call “bookends.” In this case the theme is the resurrection. First Lazarus is resurrected in Bethany. That miracle triggers the decision of the religious authorities to have Jesus condemned and killed. They intend to prevent what they believe will be an insurrection against the Roman occupation. So the resurrection of Lazarus is our first bookend, the second being the glorious resurrection of our Lord the following week. Intertwined with all the events of the week is another set of bookends: the dispersion of all the disciples after the events of Calvary, and their gathering at Pentecost. These represent the Passion as experienced by Our Lord, and the Passion as experienced by the Church. The pattern is so rich that each step will require its own reflection.

Jesus arrives in Bethany and resurrects his friend Lazarus

We can learn a lot about the Church as a withering branch by examining Lazarus death and resurrection. Jesus is far away from Bethany when Lazarus falls ill and dies. We will use that as a figure or image of the Church. In the last days the Lord will allow the Church to wither and die. Jesus will be only apparently absent. He is allowing his enemies to try destroying the vine He has planted.

So the sisters sent word to Jesus, “Lord, the one you love is sick.” When he heard this, Jesus said, “This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it.” Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days, and then he said to his disciples, “Let us go back to Judea.” (John 11: 4-7)

God is always a benefactor. Everything He allows to happen to His Church will produce good results eventually, even if we fail to see how or when those good results will come. Lazarus here represents the Church of the last days: sick, withering, lost to all human efforts to keep her alive. As Jesus tarries to go back to Bethany so it may seem to us that He is delaying in curing the Church from its current woes, but while we needlessly worry about the straits of the times, He is coming back.

“But Rabbi,” they said, “a short while ago the Jews there tried to stone you, and yet you are going back?” Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Anyone who walks in the daytime will not stumble, for they see by this world’s light. It is when a person walks at night that they stumble, for they have no light.” (John 11:8-10)

Jesus comes back in times of danger. In the Old Testament image of the Triumphant Lord of Hosts, the Sabaoth, death goes before Him.

His splendor was like the sunrise; rays flashed from His hand, where His power was hidden. Plague went before Him; pestilence followed his steps. He stood, and shook the earth; He looked, and made the nations tremble […] I heard and my heart pounded, my lips quivered at the sound; decay crept into my bones, and my legs trembled. Yet I will wait patiently for the day of calamity to come on the nation invading us. Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Savior. (Habakkuk 3:5-6, 16-18; please read the whole chapter carefully in your Bible, or  here.)

Jesus has to explain to His disciples that Lazarus is dead. He knows about Lazarus death supernaturally. In fact He only decides to return after Lazarus has died.

So then he told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead, and for your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” Then Thomas (also known as Didymus)[1] said to the rest of the disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” (John 14:15-16)

Thomas misinterprets the words “let us go with him” quite negatively. Knowing that the area is now hostile to them, Thomas imagines that they are returning to a sure death. He is not completely wrong in thinking so. The disciples will experience a form of spiritual death when Jesus is crucified. Most of them will have a crisis of faith and lay dormant until the news of Jesus’ Resurrection begin to reach them. Thomas’ resignation to his fate is not idly registered here, later on – after Calvary – he will be the last to believe that Jesus is alive. He is a good example of the ‘practical’ believer, ready to accept the greatest sacrifices for the faith, and yet unable to find that joy coming from the knowledge that God always wants the best for us.

Jesus has allowed the death of his friend to teach the disciples that there is no such thing as defeat, even when all experience and common sense appear to indicate the contrary. According to St John in his Revelation, the Church will have to experience that kind of defeat in the Last Days:

The beast […] was given power to wage war against God’s holy people and to conquer them […] This calls for patient endurance and faithfulness on the part of God’s people. (Revelation 13:5-7)

Jesus arrives in Bethany

When Jesus arrives in Bethany He has to stay away from town to avoid danger because His enemies are now strong and waiting for Him. I think this also points at the last days when the Church no longer will hold any power, and the entire culture will be hostile to the Gospel. To conquer those unbelieving souls the Lord must act prudently not to overwhelm their free will. The death of Lazarus in the midst of those unfavorable circumstances is nothing but the love of God, reaching out even to those who hate Him.

Martha, the sister of Lazarus goes to meet Jesus. She represents those who will remain believers even in the darkest days. Those believers will seek the Lord in the dark night of the Church through constant prayer, trusting in Him even when He appears to be “out of town” absent from the scene of a wicked and hostile world.

“Lord,” Martha said to Jesus, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.” Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha answered, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?” “Yes, Lord,” she replied, “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.” (John 11:17-27)

Martha’s confidence is total but her eyes are not yet open to the power of God. Her conclusion is part of the Creed “I believe … in Jesus Christ, His only Son Our Lord … He shall come to judge the living and the dead.”

After she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary aside. “The Teacher is here,” she said, “and is asking for you.” When Mary heard this, she got up quickly and went to him. Now Jesus had not yet entered the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. (John 11:28-30)

There are some among the faithful that will sense the nearness of Christ in the Last Days. Martha is a figure or prophetic model of those Christians who will quickly alert the dormant and confused Church that the Lord is “near, at the doors.”

“Who then is the faithful and wise servant, whom the Master has put in charge of the servants in his household to give them their food at the proper time? It will be good for that servant whose Master finds him doing so when he returns. Truly I tell you, He will put him in charge of all his possessions. (Matthew 24: 45-47)

We know good, practical Martha is the one “in charge” of the household in Bethany. She moves quickly to let her sister and the rest of the family know that Jesus is near and then arranges things to guide the Lord to the place where Lazarus rests. The Jews present there follow her. Ah! may this be an indication that the sons of Israel will be lead by the faithful Church to the encounter with their Messiah. Notice how the pattern of the mystery repeats in St Paul’s letter to the Romans: just as Lazarus is allowed to die to teach the world the power of Christ over death, God will allow the Jews to disobey so He can rescue them and call them to faithfulness in the last day, a great sign of His power and mercy.

As far as the Gospel is concerned, they [the Jews] are enemies for your sake; but as far as election is concerned, they are loved on account of the patriarchs, for God’s gifts and his call are irrevocable. Just as you who were at one time disobedient to God have now received mercy as a result of their disobedience, so they too have now become disobedient in order that they too may now receive mercy as a result of God’s mercy to you. For God has bound everyone over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all. (Romans 11:28-32)

When Mary Magdalene finds Jesus, still outside Bethany, she falls at His feet. She is sure that Jesus could have cured Lazarus if He had arrived in time. Jesus weeps although He is in perfect control of the situation, and He knows that Lazarus will live. Christ wept to show us He is aware of the sufferings of the Church that is His body and His bride.

When Mary reached the place where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. “Where have you laid him?” he asked. “Come and see, Lord,” they replied. Jesus wept. Then the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”

The skeptics (soon to be believers) bring up another useful point. He who opened the eyes of the blind man was not there to prevent Lazarus from dying. Christ gave light to the Church first, the light of truth as expressed in the Gospel. Why is He going to allow the vine to wither and die? Again the pattern of the mystery repeats: He allows an apparent evil to befall His people to teach us of His great power, mercy, and love.

Lazarus raised form the dead

The dramatic scene is set. Jesus is standing before the grave of His friend, surrounded by skeptics and enemies, pessimistic believers like Thomas, and other believers like Martha and Mary completely overcome by sadness before the reality of death. There stands Our Lord contemplating this little scale model of the human condition: evil, strife, death, impotence, and sadness. He prays:

“Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me.” (John 11:41-42)

Then He cries out:

“Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face. Jesus said to them, “Take off the grave clothes and let him go.” (John 11:43-44)

Imagine the moment when a Church overwhelmed, confused, lost in the darkness of a hateful world hears the voice of the Shepherd. This moment represents the Divine Groom rescuing the Church-Bride!

“Arise, My beloved, My beautiful one, and come!  For see, the winter is past, the rains are over and gone.  The flowers appear on the earth. The time of pruning the vines has come, and the song of the dove is heard in our land. The fig tree puts forth its figs, and the vines, in bloom, give forth fragrance. Arise, My beloved, My beautiful one, and come!”   (Song of Songs 2:10-13)

God is good. He is a benefactor. Everything we receive from Him is for our own good, even those things that are apparently bad. The enemies of the Church will never prevail but the Church will not be spared descending into the darkness of death as Jesus did on Good Friday.

As we continue to examine the prophetic pattern of the Passion, pray that God will open your understanding of this great mystery, and give you the wisdom to convert this knowledge into trust, and trust into the strength to rest in Him as we face the days of darkness.

He guides me along the right paths for his Name’s sake. Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for You are with me, Your rod and Your staff will comfort me. (Psalm 23: 3-4)


 

[1] Thomas (Aramaic) and Didymus (Greek) meaning twin. This is the same “doubting Thomas” that would later fail to believe in the report of the Resurrection. In this case Thomas saw the situation in the most negative light, assuming that the Jewish authorities were going to make short work of the disciples of Jesus as soon as they returned to the area (Bethany is only a short distance of Jerusalem.) Through tradition we know that Thomas was sent to evangelize India where he was martyred after encountering much unbelief.

 

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2 thoughts on “From death to life

  1. I must have read the Lazarus story many, many times, but I never saw it so illuminated as you have done here. Will the Warning and Miracle in each waiting heart unfold as it did in this story? I am one of many who waits.

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