April 1, 2017

Homily | Fifth Sunday in Lent, April 2, 2017, Year A

Fr. René J. Butler, M.S.
Provincial Superior, La Salette Missionaries of North America
Hartford, Connecticut

We are faced today with such an embarrassment of riches in the readings, one hardly knows where to begin. It would be interesting to ask each of you what struck you in particular. Let me share what struck me. I begin with... the Responsorial Psalm!

“Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord.” The Psalmist certainly had his fair share of the experience of “the depths.” Many Psalms have a similar theme: “I cry aloud to God, cry aloud to God that he may hear me” (Ps. 77). Perhaps the bleakest of all ends with the words, “My only friend is darkness” (Ps. 88).

Virtually everyone knows what it is like to be swallowed up by that ocean, drowning in what Shakespeare calls “a sea of troubles.” It can be the boundless depths of grief, the remorseless depths of misery, the hideous depths of rage, the black depths of fear, the pathless depths of doubt, the icy depths of pain, the cavernous depths of depression & hopelessness (“My only friend is darkness”), the relentless depths of guilt, the unimagined depths of humiliation, or the insatiable depths of addiction.

There are of course other fathomless depths in life, like love and trust and hope. It was from the depths of sorrow and the depths of faith that Martha, and then Mary, reproached Jesus: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” In his encounter with Martha, Jesus challenges her faith—and ours—with an extraordinary claim, “I am the Resurrection and the Life,” followed by a bewildering declaration: “Whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” To paraphrase: You won’t die, but even if you do die, you won’t. Then follows the question, “Do you believe this?”

It would appear that only a believer can hold on to this puzzling truth, even without actually making perfect sense of it. It isn’t Western logic; it’s faith. (This applies also to today’s second reading.)

There is no doubt that faith is at the heart of this Gospel story. Before leaving for Bethany Jesus tells his disciples he is glad he didn’t save Lazarus from dying, “that you may believe.” Then there is the encounter with Martha. Later, at the tomb, Jesus prays aloud to the Father, so that the crowd “may believe that you sent me.” And the story ends with the words, “Now many of the Jews who had come to Mary and seen what he had done began to believe in him.”

Jesus also experienced the depths. On the cross he cried out in the words of Psalm 22, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” And in today’s Gospel, “Jesus wept.”

Matthew, Mark and Luke all describe the scene of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, and in the first two he confides to Peter, James and John: “My soul is sorrowful, even to death.” There is no equivalent in the Passion according to St. John.

But maybe we might not be totally misguided in seeing the same reality in that famously short verse, “Jesus wept.” The bystanders recognized the depths of his grief for his dead friend and the bereaved sisters. But sorrow at the death of another is never isolated from sorrow at the prospect of one’s own inevitable passing. In John’s Gospel, Jesus always knows what is coming. The death of Lazarus furnishes the perfect opportunity for Jesus to react to the suffering and death that lie ahead.

We read that Jesus was still “perturbed” when he arrived at the tomb. Lazarus, meanwhile, was in the depths of the grave. Jesus summoned him, fulfilling in a spectacular way the prophecy of Ezekiel.

Let us return for a moment to our Psalm. We don’t know exactly what depths of suffering the psalmist was experiencing, but we do know that he didn’t simply wallow in it. “Out of the depths” he cried, yes indeed, but to the Lord, in faith.

In the light of all this, we return, finally, to Jesus’ words to Martha, “Whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live,  and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” Suddenly it all makes sense if we look at Lazarus. After Jesus raised him, he died again at some later date. But death no longer had a hold on him.

Jesus does not deliver us from dying. That is part of the human condition, which he also shared. But he does deliver us from death, that is, from death’s ultimate, absolute power. Death shall have no dominion.

Do you believe this?

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