Last summer, a friend of mine died. It was unexpected. I was chatting with him on Friday night, and on Saturday morning his kayak overturned and through a tragic—and heroic—series of events, he died. (Story in: Local Paper, National Catholic Register; Obituary) I will admit, I wasn’t as close to Brian as his family or the seminarians who attended school with him, but he was a friend, and it stung me when he died. I was surprised, shocked and confused. I couldn’t help but wonder: Why? Why has God taken this great young man away from us, from his family, from the world? Why didn’t God reach out and grant him a little help getting to shore? Why?
I think that this is maybe a little like how Mary and Martha felt when Lazarus died. They knew that Jesus could have prevented Lazarus from dying. It says so right in the Gospel: “Martha said to Jesus, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’” But then Martha says something that shows her extreme depth of faith in Jesus, “But even now I know that whatever you ask of God, God will give you.” Martha has not asked Jesus to raise Lazarus, but has simply expressed her trust that Jesus will do what is best. This reminds me of the episode at the Wedding of Cana, where the Mother of God’s last words in Sacred Scripture have the same sentiment: “Do whatever he tells you.” She does not tell Jesus what to do, but simply places her trust in him to do what is best. Like the Mother of God, Martha, and later Mary, both express this deep trust in Jesus.
The crowd does not share this faith. They ask, “Could not the one who opened the eyes of the blind man have done something so that this man would not have died?” The Gospel said that Jesus became “perturbed” by this—Jesus was upset, unsettled. Some translations go so far as to say he was angered. Jesus then goes to the tomb and calls Lazarus forth. Lazarus, who after four days in the tomb was expected to be rotting, was alive! Jesus had planned this from the beginning to increase the faith of his followers. It was a trial for Martha and Mary, but because of their faith, they also grew in true hope.
Deacon Andrew, Brian’s brother, talked about hope at his brother’s memorial Mass. As I sat there listening, in awe of the fact that he was able to compose himself better than I could compose myself, he said that “[h]ope is not sentiment or wishful thinking, it is the habit by which we long for a good, stretching forth for a future good not yet attained. We would not reach out for a good unless it existed and was truly possible. We have hope in eternal salvation and for the reunion of our loved ones because it is indeed possible. Although not a given, and not easy, the Lord makes it possible, and that is why we have hope.” Doesn’t this sound like the Gospel story today? This trial was not easy for Martha and Mary. They desired for Lazarus to be with them. They knew that with God anything was possible. While those who are close to us who die do not typically rise from the dead, we can hope to be reunited with them in eternity.
But for this to be a legitimate hope, we must remember that to meet our loved ones in Heaven, we must actually get to Heaven. In hell, we are cut off from God and we become closed in on ourselves. (See CCC 1033-1037.) Some say that “hell is other people,” but that is not true. Hell consists of eternal separation not only from God, but from other people. The difficulty in getting to Heaven is why we must have hope in order to get there. Hope is necessary when there is something in between us and a good. Martha and Mary had hope that Jesus would bring good out of the situation, even though Lazarus was dead. The Mother of God had hope that Jesus would bring good out of the situation, even though the wine had run out. Deacon Andrew and his family had hope that his brother had fought the good fight, and been filled by the spirit sufficiently that he could reach Heaven. Furthermore, they have hope that they will live sufficiently good lives that they’ll get to see him again in Heaven after their time in this world in complete.
Hope is a gift given to us by the Holy Spirit. (See CCC 1817-1821.) If we do not allow ourselves to be filled by the Spirit, we will not be able to have true hope. The prophet Ezekiel and Paul both talk about the Spirit filling us today. Paul writes that we must follow the Spirit, not the flesh. We must allow the Spirit of Christ to fill us, he writes. This Spirit gives life to us in many ways. It gives us the life of virtues, and it gives us many spiritual gifts every day. God, through His Holy Spirit who lives within each one of us, gives us innumerable gifts each and every day. In this way, He supports us in our spiritual life. Through Confession, the Spirit acts in a special way and raises us from spiritual death—something far greater than a simple bodily raising from the dead. But even this is promised to us in Ezekiel. Speaking through the prophet Ezekiel, God promises to open the graves of his people and send out his Spirit, so that we may live and know that He is Lord.
So how do we open ourselves to this Spirit?
It is simple, but also extremely difficult. We must develop a personal relationship with God. To do this takes time. We must pray daily: perhaps we could say a daily Rosary, meditate daily on the Scriptures, or spend some time in private mental prayer every day. We must attend Mass frequently. While attending Mass on Sundays and Holy Days is good, this is one thing where more is better. Consider attending Mass during the week some time. We must us the Sacrament of Reconciliation regularly. Reconciliation forgives us our sins and raises us from spiritual death. It restores our relationship with God that becomes lost and clouded by the dirt and grime of sin. We should study our faith, especially in regards to Jesus Christ and the Gospels, Mary the Mother of God and the other saints, as well as the many devotions and practices that have been developed over the years to help us all grow in our faith.
After experiences of death, of personal suffering, and of confusion, I have always found my faith a comfort. My relationship with God grows stronger through each trial, because each trial forces me to recognize that I cannot do this without him. We are all called to be friends with God, to be filled with his Spirit. We are all called to have faith and hope in God. When we have even a little bit of true faith, we can move mountains.
So let us continue to build our relationship with God every day, and allow him to help us, especially by the use of the Sacraments.
Today’s Readings: Ez 37:12-14; Ps 130: 1-2, 3-4, 5-6, 7-8; Rom 8:8-11; Jn 11:1-45